FIGHTING FIRE: A municipal service steeped in tradition
(from Maine Townsman, October 1998)
By Linda Lockhart, Legislative Advocate, MMA State & Federal Relations department

Maine’s tradition of volunteer firefighting may be plummeting toward certain destruction, praying that some ripcord will appear and promise a soft landing. Volunteer firefighting as an institution is suspended between its history of heroism, volunteerism, and relative autonomy and the ever-increasing demands of regulation and technology.

In the early days of firefighting, most fire companies were formed as closed societies for the protection of members’ property.

When they were "mutual insurance" organizations, it made sense that they were volunteers and that they provided their own equipment. Now, the public demands that they serve all homes, businesses and individuals within and often outside their jurisdiction, not just members. We require them to interpret and comply with laws and regulations and maintain detailed and accurate records of that compliance. Now, governments regulate or propose to regulate nearly every aspect of their personal safety, equipment, and operations, yet citizens continue to rely on their traditions of volunteerism and fundraising.

There can be little doubt that variables on one side of the equation must change in response to variables that have already changed on the other side of the equation. Major stress points that stimulate a search for new structures for the provision of firefighting services are: funding, volunteerism, and regulation.

Volunteerism: roots don’t burn easily

The type of volunteer fire departments common to Maine are characteristically American. Though volunteer firefighters have existed in other countries, only the United States has produced fire companies and associations that are deeply embedded in cultural and social interaction. The first American volunteer fire company was formed in Boston in 1717, with 20 men agreeing to bring two buckets and two large bags to every fire. In the early years of Maine firefighting, the greatest force brought to bear against the threat was determination.

The typical early fire company was organized as a mutual insurance company. The members committed to fighting fires for the membership and reimbursing members’ fire losses from funds maintained for that purpose. An early Maine example is provided by the Bath Fire Society, formed in 1907 to protect the property of its membership with best efforts, and to compensate members for fire damage.

"Upon an alarm of fire every member shall immediately repair thereto with his bucket, bags and knapsack and shall, in a special manner, direct his exertions to the preservation of those buildings and effects, belonging to the members of this society, more immediately exposed to destruction. Should any member lose his buckets or bags at a fire, and after diligent search and inquiry, should be unable to recover them, the loss will be repaired by the society.

Should any member of this society be reduced in his circumstances by fire, he shall be presented by the society with whatever sum they, considering his situation, may think proper." (History of Bath, Maine, Henry Wilson Owen, 1936 describing the Bath Fire Society, formed as a mutual insurance company in 1803.)

The Maine legislature soon codified a structure for firefighting that maintained membership organizations for firefighters, but made their efforts to fight fire available to a broader public.

"The respective companies of engine men who may be nominated and appointed in pursuance of this Act, shall be held and obliged to meet together once a month and oftener if necessary, for the purpose of examining the state of the engine to which they belong, and the appendages belonging to the same, and seeing that the said engine is in good repair, and ready to proceed on any emergency to the relief of any part of the community that may be invaded by the calamity of fire; and the said engine men appointed as aforesaid shall be held and obliged to go forward either by night or by day, under the direction of the fire wards in the same town, and to use their best endeavours to extinguish any fire that may happen in the same town, or the vicinity thereof, and shall come to their knowledge." (Laws of Maine, 1821 Chap. 132 sec. 2)

Fundraising: The historical approach to buying equipment

The governing tradition for acquisition of firefighting equipment has been organized fundraising. Public suppers, box socials, product parties, car washes, walkathons, food sales, chimney cleaning and even door-to-door solicitation have funded protective gear, radio equipment, vehicles and all manner of gear required by prudence if not by laws and rulemaking. But as the necessary equipment has become more technical, more expensive, and more often driven by federal and state mandates, the abilities of fire departments and their auxiliaries to keep up with the need for funds have eroded. Instead, municipal budgets have been required to fund firefighting equipment.

Firefighters love a challenge and that has hurt them financially. Communities have challenged them to provide their own equipment or do without and they have come through on that challenge. Because firefighters have been so successful at funding their own requirements, the town meeting often relies on them to continue to do so.

Historically, the need for new firefighting equipment was often stimulated by technological improvements. Firefighters have asked municipalities to fund equipment that ensures "pride" among the firefighters as well as efficient protection for the jurisdiction. Increasingly, however, the need for new firefighting equipment is demanded by regulatory mandates. Technology has changed and the rules have changed.

"Long past are the days when it was enough for a fireman to have big muscles, a hard head, and to be sober enough to toss a bucket of water or pump an engine." (Earnest, Ernest. The Volunteer Fire Company, Stein and Day, New York, 1979).

Volunteer Firefighters: An Endangered Profession

Full-time and volunteer firefighters are different.

Most full-time firefighters start as volunteers. Not a single volunteer firefighter encountered through preparation of this article has disagreed with the notion that volunteers would be full-time if the jobs were available. There are few volunteer firefighters that would not seize the opportunity to become career firefighters.

It is not unusual for volunteers to get an associates degree, take the firefighter training and the paramedic training and compete for the few career positions. The last time Waterville Fire Chief Darrel Fournier advertised for a full-time firefighter, his Department tested 80 applicants and 20 candidates, all well qualified, competed for the single position.

And yet, Chief Fournier, who leads both full-time and call firefighters, sees a clear transformation process as firefighters become full-time. "Once you’re exposed to the career rank, your priorities change. You look at it totally different. It’s a profession at that point. You’re after the bucks, and I do see a change, so I think that does happen. As opposed to volunteers, the majority are not getting any money for the job and the rewards are different. The career firefighters are given a paycheck, while the volunteer firefighters get a new set of turnout gear, or a handshake, or a pat on the back."

"Some volunteer fire departments have a higher level of training than career departments," says Fournier. "The level of professionalism is just as high among the volunteer people as it is among the career people and they should be looked at as equals on that basis."

Fire departments already experience difficulty in recruiting volunteers to fight fires. In many rural towns, volunteers work miles away during the day and coverage for fires that occur during the work hours is almost non-existent. A volunteer’s time commitment is great. In addition to time spent responding to calls, volunteers must participate in training and equipment maintenance activities. When asked how much of a time commitment he demands of his volunteers, Chief Ned Labelle of Ashland replied, "Twenty-four hours a day."

What if there were no more volunteer departments? Chief Fournier responded to this question: "The fire service is going to hurt. Small towns will not go full time. For example, I’ve got a camp up at the Forks, they have a small fire department. They’ll never go paid. Now, they only have a small nucleus of 8 or 10 people, but at least those 8 or 10 people will go in there and do what they can. They have some level of fire protection. If you go full-time only, you’ll have regional departments and there’s probably going to be a longer response time. The level of fire protection is going to diminish significantly. When the volunteer firefighters are out of business for structure fires, they’re also out of business for forest fires."

Regulations: the new challenge

Legal research of Maine’s fire protection laws undertaken by MMA in 1974 revealed a "patchwork quilt of archaic terminology." While this quilt displayed a confusion of laws concerning the fire protection duties of municipalities, the relationship between independent fire protection organizations and the municipalities they serve, and the authority of fire chiefs, conspicuously absent were laws concerning firefighter safety.

The first safety standards for Maine firefighters were the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fire brigade provisions of 1910. Not until the Maine Legislature adopted Minimum Safety Standards for Firefighters in 1987 (26 MRSA, c. 28) did Maine’s firefighting organizations begin to effectively standardize safety procedures. The most critical changes to firefighting operations as a result of laws and rules have taken place in the last 11 years of a two hundred year old tradition.

The "2-In-2-Out" Rule

A current regulatory proposal has stimulated considerable controversy among firefighters and is of concern to municipalities that will be required to fund the resulting changes in operations. This regulatory proposal is commonly referred to as the "2-in-2-out Rule." In January of this year, the United States Department of Labor OSHA issued new requirements for its respirator protection standard, found in Title 29 CFR Part 1910.134. The Maine Department of Labor responded this spring by proposing to incorporate the federal rules into Maine regulation by reference.

Public hearings on the proposed rule took place in mid-April and became the forum for controversy and confusion about the feasibility and costs involved with implementation of the federal standard in Maine. While the standard applies to all employees who use respiratory protection equipment, including business, manufacturing, and waste treatment plant employees, the greatest impact is expected among Maine’s firefighting community. In fact, one portion of the standard applies only to firefighters. The respiratory protection standard includes three major provisions.

2 Inside and 2 Outside

This is the firefighter-specific provision and has become the most common name for the entire standard. According to the rule, when firefighters enter a structure fire, a minimum of two firefighters, equipped with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs, also called "air packs" and "Scott packs") must enter together and remain in visual or voice contact. At the same time, two firefighters must be available and equipped with SCBAs at the point of entry of the original two firefighters in order to effect a rescue should rescue be required.

Fit Testing

This provision requires creation and monitoring of a program to provide that all respirator wearers are properly fitted with respirator equipment (SCBA) suitable for their individual physical configuration and trained on proper fit and use of the equipment.

Medical Evaluation

Under the new standard, in order to be allowed to use respiratory protection equipment, employees must meet health and fitness requirements. At its simplest, this provision will require employees to fill out a health status questionnaire that will be evaluated by a medical professional. Certain responses to the questionnaire will trigger a more extensive medical evaluation and could lead to a prohibition on an employee’s use of respiratory protection equipment.

As a result of the concerns voiced in the April public hearings, and with the endorsement of Governor King and Commissioner Landry of the Maine Department of Labor, the State OSHA Board convened an ad hoc advisory group to make recommendations for adoption of a Maine-specific version of the respiratory protection standard. The ad hoc group has yet to complete its review of the federal standard.

MMA has advised the OSHA Board of the Association’s position that any version of the rule that imposes additional costs on municipalities will constitute a mandate as defined by Maine’s constitution and law and must be funded at least at a 90% level by the State or enacted as an unfunded mandate by a 2/3 vote of the Legislature. Maine Department of Labor participants on the ad hoc group have characterized the mandate issue as "unresolved".

In most small towns, one or perhaps two structure fires per year is probably the norm. This new rule will require medical evaluation, fit testing, perhaps purchase of individual respirators, education, and continuous monitoring of medical fitness and equipment fit for all firefighters who could potentially fight that one structure fire per year. The cost of this program may be more than those small towns can bear.

Blame for the staffing requirement of the rule is most often attributed to labor unions representing full-time firefighters. The presumption is that the requirement that four SCBA-equipped firefighters be "at ready" before a burning structure can be entered is designed to ensure more jobs for full-time firefighters. Blame aside, it is clear that the unions, or at least the individual representing them in the ad hoc group, have no sympathy for the effect of the rule on volunteer fire departments.

When the dilemma of the small town with few structure fires was described to the union representative at a recent meeting, his answer to the burden on volunteer fire departments was that it may have the effect of putting them out of business, but that putting them out of business may be what needs to happen. Instead of volunteers, he envisioned county or regional fire departments with full-time, paid firefighters. But, what about the volunteers’ right to volunteer? The union representative did not appear to find this right compelling. Instead, he cited a court case upholding an employer’s right to prohibit certain volunteer activities among its employees.

No more heroes

Maine fire chiefs who rely heavily or exclusively on volunteer firefighters are concerned that the medical evaluation portion of the Respiratory Protection Standard will eliminate many volunteer firefighters from their ranks. The fear of losses among already endangered ranks is serious and real to those who take responsibility for providing fire protection. The medical evaluation portion of the standard is designed to protect full time firefighters from hazards they are expected to face every day on the job. Many volunteers are likely to fail the physical requirements for use of SCBAs. Firefighters who cannot use SCBAs cannot be counted on for rescue or for any firefighting operations that require use of SCBAs.

According to Chief Fournier, "We’re not killing firefighters doing structural firefighting." While the required medical evaluations may keep some firefighters from wearing respiratory protection equipment, they will not prevent over exertion. Chief Fournier expects to lose a minimum of 10-12 of his 45 volunteer firefighters because the 10-12 will not pass the fitness evaluations.

According to Jon Ljunggren, Vienna Fire Chief, rigid medical testing would mean the demise of the volunteer fire system. Chief Ljunggren characterizes the rule as "unionized fire department thinking."

Some options to deal with "2-In-2-Out"

A few options for dealing with the stresses on the tradition of volunteer firefighting in general and the 2-in-2-out rule in particular that have been offered along the way include:

1) Ignore it. Some speculate that the 2-in-2-out rule will be ignored in its entirety until a tragedy takes place. Then a search for a place to lay blame will end with failure to comply. When the dust settles, the rule will be enforced, regardless of whether or not lack of compliance had any relationship to the tragedy.

2) Legislate it away. This is the current approach in the Massachusetts Legislature where a bill approved by the House would exempt volunteer firefighters from health and fitness standards required by the OSHA rule and state law. Arguments for the bill include that the standard is meant to apply to full-time employees and that requiring volunteers to submit to expensive and time-consuming medical exams and fitness tests would create a barrier to recruiting and retaining these individuals and result in tremendous costs to communities.

3) Fund it. If the State were to contribute the additional costs attributable the new rule then fire departments and their funding municipalities would not be as deeply affected.

4) Regionalize fire departments. This may be a viable solution in the more densely populated areas of the state, but is not comforting to communities that are separated by great distances.

5) Regionalize compliance. This scenario would create a single (paid) compliance officer to carry the administrative burden of regulatory compliance for multiple departments. This partial solution would provide expert compliance abilities to the member departments, standardize compliance, provide economies in the amount of time spent interpreting and understanding the regulations, and cut costs of compliance for individual departments. A model for this type of issue-specific regionalization is the creation of hazardous material teams such as the Kennebec Valley Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team. This Team, formed by the communities of Waterville, Fairfield, Sidney, Oakland and Winslow and several area businesses is led by the Waterville fire Department. The Team responds to any releases of hazardous materials and coordinates the operation at the scene of any incident within the coverage area.

To think about

This exploration of the evolutionary pressures on Maine’s fire service raises more questions than it answers. Do we value Maine’s system of fire service and its 90% volunteer composition? Who gets to make that value judgment? Is there a way to reduce, slow down, or mitigate the impact of federal regulation on volunteer fire departments and the municipalities they serve? If the change must come, should it come through rulemaking, or should Maine’s citizens be allowed to affect the decision-making process? In the next few years, the answers to these questions will unfold, with or without our conscious participation.


SIDEBAR

Why would anyone volunteer for this?

Chief Ned Labelle, Ashland Fire Department

When Ned Labelle was only 7 months old, his father died. Ned’s father was Assistant Chief of the Ashland Fire Department at the time of his death, and the Department continued, for a time, to include the family in its social activities. Through his contact with the firefighters who had known his father, Ned learned who his father was and modeled himself on the good stories he heard about his dad and the other firefighters. Ned was determined to continue his father’s volunteerism and to "bring home the Chief’s hat" that surely would have belonged to his father. Ned joined the Ashland Fire Department when he was 16 and was elected Captain before he was 30.

Martha McDowell, Chaplain, Call Firefighter on Tower Company,

Clerk for Tower Company, Waterville Fire Department

Martha McDowell began her association with the Waterville Fire Department as a chaplain. After six months in that role, she decided that she was ready to be a firefighter. She gained a great deal of confidence in "rookie school" (Firefighter I Training). Since then, she has played the dual role of firefighter and chaplain, whichever the situation demands of her, though it is likely that she is a chaplain even when actively engaged in firefighting.

Chief Darrel Fournier, Waterville Fire Department

Darrel Fournier’s uncle took him along on a Freeport fire call when he was 12 years old. "He grabbed me, it was a barn fire, drove with the lights and sirens on his car to the thing — ended up grabbing me a hose line and I helped to fight the fire."

Firefighters cited these reasons for their commitment to the service:

• The adrenaline, no question (always said with a little smile).

• Family connection — a father, an uncle, a family way of life.

• Wanting to help people.

• Wanting to contribute to the community, to give something back.

• You belong to something, it’s a real tight knit group, it’s special.

• Worldwide brotherhood.

• "The absolute fear and the sheer physical strength that needs to be used is directly relational, directly proportional to the sense of fulfillment and success that you achieve." (Martha McDowell).

• The enemy you are asked to fight (the dragon) is clear — few things in life are so clear-cut and allow you to feel so good about what you have done.