If your home is on fire, which of the following would you prefer?
- A response by a crew of firefighters that includes volunteers who have a relatively minimal amount of training.
- No response.
We think we know the answer, because for centuries volunteer firefighters have been responding to home fires, often making the difference in saving the structure and sometimes making the difference in saving lives.
But despite those centuries of success, the federal government in the past decade decided that the system was broken. So along came new sets of regulations and increased training requirements. And down went the ranks of volunteer firefighters.
The fallout from that can be catastrophic. Just ask Archie Powers. His Gold Hill-area garage was destroyed and home badly damaged by a fire that occurred on a day when a volunteer-staffed fire station was not staffed, because there simply are not enough volunteers to handle all the necessary slots.
Fire departments — such as Jackson County Fire District No. 3, which covers the Gold Hill area and much of the northern portion of the Bear Creek Valley — find themselves in a squeeze play. Funding is stagnant or shrinking; the vast majority of calls that come in are for medical assistance and reimbursements for many of those calls do not cover the costs; and now well-meaning rules applied by people wearing blinders have cut into the departments' manpower.
Regulators were missing the bigger picture when they raised the standard to a point that training becomes almost a full-time job for two months. That bigger picture is easy to describe: People are busy. They want to help their community, but they are not willing to give up a big chunk of their lives to do it.
In trying to make communities safer by imposing tougher training standards, the feds instead succeeded in making them less safe.
There is no question that we would all prefer a fully qualified fire crew to respond to our house if a fire broke out. But the evidence of centuries of volunteer fire fighting shows that firefighters with modest credentials can do the job, especially when they are working in tandem with paid professionals or experienced volunteers.
A large number of paid volunteers remains in the country, and in Oregon, where of the approximately 10,000 firefighters, 8,000 are volunteers. But that number represents a decline that matches the national decline of 10 to 12 percent.
Those volunteers not only provide the backbone for firefighting efforts in the state, and especially in rural communities, but also save taxpayers a huge amount of money through their donated time. Nationally, the savings in 2010 were pegged at $3.7 billion, with Oregon's share put at $444 million for the year.
Volunteers not only contribute to the safety and finances of communities, but make those communities more closely knit through the interaction that comes from bringing people from all walks of life together in a volunteer effort.
Firefighters should be adequately trained, both for the protection of the community and their own safety. But that training happened in part for years at reduced levels and through the wisdom passed down by more experienced members of the departments.
There's a middle ground that can accommodate safety and recruiting alike.
The federal government and other agencies involved in setting training standards need to take the blinders off, rely on a little common sense and find a way to accomplish necessary training without driving off the people it's intended to help.