By Bill Powers
You never know when or where a prompt to write a story will come from. In this case it unexpectedly came from a political candidate at a campaign gathering, who is a local elected public official and a candidate in the upcoming election. The conversation among a small group quickly and inevitably shifted to important issues currently confronting our town. They included safety concerns such as the maternity care desert debacle and loss of critical care services at our local hospital, the police civilian review board discussion that had somehow evaporated without a public hearing, and the need to consolidate the four fire departments in our town. With respect to the fire department consolidation issue, for the elected official it was an obvious no brainer. All of the fire departments in town should be staffed only by “PROFESSIONALS” and NOT “VOLUNTEERS”. I was immediately curious, uneasy and a little resentful, and for good reason. I asked, “Do you need to be career, paid firefighter in order to be a “professional” firefighter?” The answer came back, “Of course.”
The term “professional” can have many meanings for just as many folks. We want to witness professional behavior by our police officers, attorneys, business men and women, teachers, elected officials, and supreme court justices. We know it when we see it, and when don’t. We can debate the exact meaning in different situations until the cows come home. However, setting guidelines for minimum standards can be helpful. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets the “Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications identifying the minimum Job Performance for career and volunteer firefighters whose duties are primarily structural in nature.” The standards are the same.
My father was a “career firefighter” in a large city department. He had plenty of training and worked many hours each week for years until he retired. In those days all the firefighters rotated shifts on a regular basis. I now realize how disruptive that must have been considering the disruption of circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. The job was physically demanding and could be dangerous. In 1956 I vividly remember watching a live TV program with a local news crew, who was broadcasting at the scene of the large and devastating fire to the Cathedral where my family regularly worshiped. It was early in the morning during the New Year’s holiday., when I turned on the television and saw our beloved cathedral as it was being consumed by a inferno of flames. I quickly called out to my mother and sister. As we watched in horror, it was like being struck by a bolt of lightning when we heard on the TV the names of two firefighters who been injured. The ceiling collapsed on them. We heard my father’s name! He was being rushed to the hospital. To this day I vividly recall everything about that moment – how I felt and hearing my mom scream and my younger sister as she began to cry.
My father presented an imposing figure in his fire department dress uniform. His being a firefighter was a source of admiration not only for me, but also my friends. I remember attending a party for Jack, a team member on my school basketball team, at his home on Prospect Avenue in Hartford. When Jack introduced me to his dad, the Governor, he said: “Dad this is Billy, he’s our other guard and his dad is a firefighter. The governor shaking my hand welcomed me and asked where my dad worked. I’m sure I beamed as I replied, “Pearl Street Fire Headquarters on Truck 1.” The governor smiled and said: “That’s near where I work at the Capitol. Please thank him for me for doing his very important work.”
I did my best to convince the candidate who was running for office that the minimum professional standards were no different for paid and volunteer firefighters. This too is the case for firefighters who are also certified to provide emergency medical services (EMS). Whether fighting fire in a large city or with a small town’s fire department, he or she must be prepared to save lives and protect property in numerous scenarios under a variety of difficult conditions. It is important to note that according to the NFPA two-thirds of the firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
In my late 30’s I made one of the best decisions of my life. I became a volunteer firefighter in Mansfield. I was able to learn new skills, serve my community and make new friends. I only wish that I had joined many years earlier. Mansfield had a hybrid system that combined both paid and volunteer firefighters. When an emergency call came in, it was possible to get the apparatus out the door to the scene right away. In my mind reducing response time is critical in order to save lives and property.
Fortunately, we have “professional” career and volunteer firefighters who not only meet professional qualifications, but who also have the ever-important professional attitudes about their service. We owe these men and women a great deal as they are willing to risk their lives to save ours.
Bill Powers resides in Windham Center where the Windham Center Fire Department has a rich volunteer tradition going all the way back to 1825 and will soon be celebrating their 200th anniversary.