Volunteer Fire Departments and Community Building. Neighbours helping Neighbours. #ChurchillFellowship Post 16

Image from the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department website: https://www.obifd.org/

There are 337 Fire Departments in the State of Maine USA, and 94% (316 of them) are Volunteer Fire Departments (VFDs). For a population of roughly 1.3 million, that works out at about 1 Fire Department per 3,964 Mainers. In Wales we have approximately 153 Fire and Rescue Stations, all operated by paid professionals. For a Welsh population of roughly 3.1 million, that works out at 1 Fire and Rescue Station per 20,424 people.

Wales and Maine are very different. The ‘green desert’ of Mid Wales is ‘overpopulated’ compared to the vast tracts of Maine wilderness, their rurality is on a different scale. So I shouldn’t be making crude comparisons of ‘fire and rescue stations per head of population’. But I have, and hopefully it’s grabbed your attention.

logo1‘NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS’, the motto of the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department is what I want to talk about. This post is the follow on to the one I wrote about; Libraries, Post Offices and Volunteer Fire Departments in Maine (link here).

The idea of ‘neighbours helping neighbours’ is something that is fundamental to the concept of; supportive, strong, resilient (able to recover from setbacks) and united (cohesive) communities. If you pause for a moment I’m sure you could recall a number of initiatives to promote neighborliness in communities you’ve seen. Everything from checking on seniors during the cold weather or sharing a meal through to organising a street party?

It’s well worth spending some time browsing the Orr’s and Bailey Islands VFD website to get an understanding of what ‘neighbors helping neighbors’ means there. Here’s a link to the website https://www.obifd.org/, and a few of my observations:

  • They have a long history.  ‘The departments financed their organizations with bake sales and lobster stew suppers which became very popular and well-attended in the area.’ Food brings people together – everywhere…
  • A role for everyone. ‘the members of our department come from all walks of life, and include retired professionals, working fishermen, stay at home moms, and high school students’ … ‘In addition to Emergency Responder positions, Volunteer opportunities exist for those interested in fulfilling support and administrative roles as well as board and committee assignments.’ 
  • Scholarships for the future. ‘​Each spring, the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department awards the Sue Cary Scholarship to help responding members or prospective members further their education. Intended to help recruit, train and retain volunteers, the scholarship is available to high school graduates…’  This is a grant of up to $5000 which would be attractive I any student I’d imagine.
Sunset from the Bailey Island loft where I spent a weekend watching the Lobster Boats

Is a Volunteer Fire Department the ‘perfect’ community cause?  I’ve probably spent too long on the Orr’s and Bailey Islands VFD website. Now I want to go back and live there, just so I can join the VFD, it’s also a stunningly beautiful place, which helps.

Over the years I’ve seen people try to build communities around all sorts of interesting, and unusual things. Lots of them have been protests; “Save the [insert appropriate public service] from closure”, for example; The Library, Doctors Surgery, Park, Theatres and even Fire Stations. A ’cause’ is a brilliant way of binding people together and motivating them to do something – for example the attempted closure of Rhydfelin Library near Pontypridd which I wrote about here.   The trouble with protests though is that there are usually two sides; people who want something to happen and people who don’t. That’s not great for uniting a community. The other thing to remember is that sooner or later a protest will end.

A VFD is different though, it’s not about preventing the closure of anything. It’s about saving people and property from damage – your neighbours and their homes. Think about it… this is a cause that nobody can disagree with (unless you’re an arsonist). Everyone can get behind the idea of a VFD, even if they do nothing, they are unlikely to be against it.

Secondly a VFD a ‘gift that keeps giving’ from a community ’cause’ perspective. The threat of fire might have diminished over the years, but the rescue part has grown with the increased number of vehicles on the road. There will always (as far as you can predict anything) be a need for some form of Fire and Rescue Service. This is perfect for any community looking to organise itself around something that matters (in my view).  In the case of Orr’s and Bailey Islands, the Sue Cary Scholarship also helps to maintain the future focus through new recruits.

A VFD will also other benefits for the wider community; alongside people becoming familiar with and habituated into the act of volunteering, they also develop the skills necessary to run an organisation. That’s got to be good for ‘community capacity building’ and should (hopefully) lead to other acts of volunteering… and who knows what else…

Just a thought, if your VFD is a ‘cornerstone’ of the community everyone will know the people involved. They are your friends, family and neighbours. Would this make you less likely to start a deliberate fire if one of these people could get injured?  Just wondering about this in the context of  the deliberate mountainside grass fires that plague the South Wales Valleys every spring.

Professional Experts versus Enthusiastic Volunteers. There is always two sides to each story and I mentioned in the earlier post that a professional (retired) fire fighter friend was quite dismissive of Volunteer Fire Departments. They raised a question about the level of technical skills and ‘doing more harm than good’. I don’t know how realistic this concern is, but faced with the choice of a local VFD turning up in within 15 mins in the middle of rural Maine, or waiting 45 mins for the ‘professionals’, I’d rather take my chances with the VFD (especially if my barn was on fire!).

The challenge of having the necessary level of technical skills came up in a conversation in a town many miles north or Bailey Island. Basically their VFD was struggling to retain operational emergency responders. This wasn’t because there was a lack of people, it was because they were struggling to find the time to do the necessary technical training. It would be a shame if the requirement for ‘demanding professional standards’ leads to the decline in a voluntary activity that had been at the heart of a community for generations.

Finally, I realise that Maine isn’t Wales. The context and requirement for fire and rescue services in rural Maine is hugely different to what is needed in the densely populated urban areas of Wales, and Maine. There is however something in the wider community benefit that comes from a Volunteer Fire Department that is worth thinking about.

So. What’s the PONT?

  1. A ’cause’ that everyone can support, that will remain relevant for a long time is potentially great focus for community building. Volunteer Fire Departments could offer both of these.
  2. The tension between Professional Experts and Enthusiastic Volunteers exists in many situations, and it needs to be acknowledged and managed.
  3. Context is everything, both community building and fire fighting in the ‘green deserts’ are very different to what is required in the ‘urban jungle’.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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