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Volunteer Fire Departments

Enduring Security

by RALPH NADER

“What do you know about Winsted’s firemen?” my mother asked me one day when I was eleven years old. “They jump into fire trucks and go put out fires fast,” I replied. “Well, you should also know,” she added, “that they’re volunteers and they risk their lives for the townspeople.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to update and expand my knowledge of the Winsted, CT Fire Department (WFD) and the Winchester Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) that work the higher elevations of this picturesque Connecticut town nestled in the Litchfield Hills. I met with several volunteer firefighters, as they are now called, and their only two paid chiefs, Robert J. Shopey II and Peter Marchand. I learned an astonishing historical fact; the Winsted Fire Department was organized with four fire companies in 1862.

One hundred and fifty-two years later, these companies – the Union Hose Company One, the Deluge Engine Company Two, the Niagara Engine Company Three and the Cascade Engine Company Four are still operating with volunteers on call and ready to move 24 hours a day, seven days a week!  Benjamin Franklin, who started the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia, PA in 1736, would be proud.

Nationwide, volunteer firefighters still make up over two-thirds of all firefighters – the rest being paid public servants.

In Winsted and Winchester, volunteers have to be physically qualified with a certification of “Firefighter I” given by the state of Connecticut, after many hours of training and passing a test. Further training qualifies them to handle forest fires, vehicle extraction, chemical/environmental spills, confined space rescues, cold-water rescues and other hazardous situations such as downed power lines and search and rescue operations.

They practice regularly each month, learn to use the latest equipment and keep the doors open for new volunteers, which is more difficult than earlier decades due to changing economic conditions, longer commutes to jobs and more intensive training requirements. Chief Shopey explained that the WFD used to have 150 volunteers, but now has 80 such stalwarts.

They are managing quite well with a response time of only seven minutes before first firefighter contact is made in this community of about 11,000 residents. That is under the 12 minute standard set by the National Fire Protection Association’s codes, the Chief noted. They get 900 calls a year. There are 90 “structure” fires, including kitchen fires.

Like other fire departments around the country, Winsted and Winchester receive grants from time to time from various federal departments for equipment and training/retention. They also receive the local support of the volunteer “Fire Police,” who control traffic around fire locations and the Winsted Area Ambulance Association and its dedicated volunteer Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).

Of course, not everything that they do is about emergency and preparation. The two Departments are alert to prevention, detection and suppression requirements in residences and other building structures, and protection of the safety of firefighters and apparatus.

Little-noticed in the national mass media is that fires and fire fatalities have been declining since 1979. Amazing progress in reduction of fire-related deaths has been made in the United States. Nationally in 2012 there were 2,855 civilian deaths and 16,500 civilian injuries, which is well under half the toll in 1979 when the population was tens of millions fewer its number. What is remarkable is that a national policy of improved fire safety has surpassed even Japan’s fire safety record – a country that forty years ago had one of the lowest fatality rates per capita in the industrialized world.

What are not progressing are the hidden hazards of synthetic chemicals that make up more and more combustible materials and can be deadly threats to the longer-term health of all firefighters.

The very perils that volunteer (and paid) firefighters choose to face at any time (recall the catastrophic loss of hundreds of New York City firefighters during 9/11) produce the solidarity, mutual aid and camaraderie for which they are properly famous.

Around the country, difficulties and exclusionary practices remain to be overcome. Also, incentives like workers compensation and some later pension benefits remain to be improved. But the volunteer tradition is an exceptional reminder of how many of our enduring and important volunteer/civic traditions originated in the 18th and 19th century. They speak to the importance of these institutions catching up with more recent needs in 20th and 21st centuries’ societies, given the decline of volunteerism seen everywhere.

In Winsted/Winchester every August there is the historic firefighters’ parade with engine companies and bands from communities across Connecticut and western Massachusetts. This tradition started in 1912 and was called by the local paper – theWinsted Evening Citizen – “The Most Magnificent Spectacle Ever Witnessed on Winsted Streets.”

Next week (April 6 to 12) is The National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) “Volunteer Firefighters Appreciation Week.”

If there are “open houses” at your nearby fire station, do consider attending. You’ll meet some self-reliant and valiant volunteers who will welcome your recognition and support in the community. Visit http://www.nvfc.org/ for more information.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.