edhed:The inevitability of paid firefighters

@edbod:There are certain riddles that last through the generations, the prototype being the old fireman question: Why do firemen wear red suspenders?

We asked Kennett Square Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Mitchell, who said in a serious vein that the answer is obvious. Beside holding up their pants, the suspenders are quick to pull on, they hold the pants on tight, and they have buckles that adjust to size in the blinking of an eye.

We then asked why firemen have sliding poles. You know, in the movies they're always sliding down poles when the alarm goes off, but here in Kennett, they don't have a pole.

The answer is that firemen use poles in firehouses where they sleep and eat upstairs. When an alarm comes in, they zoom down to the trucks. The reason we don't have a pole in Kennett (or Longwood or Po-Mar-Lin) is that they are volunteer fire companies where the firemen drive in from home, climb on the trucks, and then go to the fires.

Mr. Mitchell said this volunteer arrangement will probably not last forever. "[The firemen] just aren't here," he said. At some point either some or all of the firefighters will have to remain on site and be paid to stay there, because the pool of volunteers that existed in the old days when Kennett Square and Unionville were one-horse towns isn't here anymore.

As society changes and the towns of southern Chester County grow and become more prosperous, the cost of living here requires that homeowners work at higher paying jobs in Wilmington, Philadelphia and other urban centers. There they can't hear the fire whistle go off during business hours, and even if they could, they wouldn't be allowed to run off to a fire.

(Recall several years ago when the town was plagued with arson fires and Fire Chief Steve Melton ended up in a confusing arrangement with his employer in Delaware. It took several weeks for them to reach an agreement over his time away from work and whether he would be paid for it.)

With this being the case, two things must happen.

First, the residents of our local municipalities must be prepared to foot the bill at some time in the future for paid firefighters. Maybe the whole company or maybe some of the members will be paid -- but there must be a stable force ready to respond on sight. People in need of help could not wait for ambulance volunteers to drive from home to go to their emergency vehicles, and the system converted to paid responders. The same thing will inevitably happen with firefighters.

Second, companies within small municipalities, including the municipalities themselves, must formulate policies that permit and encourage their able-bodied employees to join as volunteers. This will possibly delay the transition to an all-paid fire company.

Recently, Kennett Square Borough Council wisely set up a policy for its employees to respond to fires. It included such things as what to do if they are in possession of a borough vehicle at the time, what they should do if the fire is insignificant, and who they must notify if they are going to leave their job to go to a fire. That's good, forward thinking.

The days of the volunteer force are waning. In the mean time, encourage those who can volunteer, but anticipate the expense of professionals in the future.

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