The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

May 17, 2013

America’s unpaid volunteers

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— My quick semester test for this week, in keeping with it being the end of the school year for most all of our local and area schools, deals with some very famous men in American history.

So, what did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore all have in common?

Well, they were Founding Fathers of this nation, presidents, patriots, heroes and a famous traitor, and all their names rest in the annals of American history at the very top of that noted list.

But I’d guess the pop quiz answer won’t be right on just about all of your papers. Why?

They weren’t just famous people, they also were all volunteer firefighters.

That’s right, from the father of our country to the guy on the $100 bill, each of these famous (or infamous) men took a turn at a bucket brigade and offered their services to help in extinguishing one of this nation’s greatest scourges — the specter of fire.

Ever since we first began building and living in structures made of combustible materials, fire has been both a blessing and a curse on mankind.

Great conflagrations still resonate in our history books, from the Great Fire of London in 1666, to the 1835 New York City fire that destroyed 530 buildings, to the Chicago fire in 1871 that burned 17,450 buildings and killed 250 people, to the hundreds of thousands of smaller fires that burned and killed and maimed over the centuries.

Here on these shores, the first fire department was an all-volunteer affair, as have been the majority of fire departments in American history.

Benjamin Franklin started it in 1736 in Philadelphia, called the Union Fire Company, although the first paid firefighters were hired earlier in 1676 in Boston — Thomas Atkins and 12 other men paid to fight fires in that major American city.

After a particularly bad fire in 1730 that destroyed much of Philadelphia’s business district along the Delaware River, Franklin wrote about the dangers of fire and the need for organized fire protection.

After another large fire in 1736, Franklin created his 30-volunteer-firefighters Union Fire Company, with Isaac Paschall the very first full-fledged volunteer firefighter in America. Soon, the idea of volunteer fire brigades gained popularity across the 13 colonies.

Two important tools utilized by early volunteer firemen were the bed key and salvage bags. Since early firefighting apparatus was only able to supply small streams of water under minimal pressure, fires almost always were out of control.

So, arriving firefighters opted for immediate salvage efforts in the structure that was burning, as well as adjacent structures.

The bed key was a tool that allowed firefighters to disassemble wooden bed frames quickly — the bed often the most valuable item a family owned. Other household goods also were placed in salvage bags and carried to safety.

Of course, the firefighting service in America has come a very long way from those early efforts, with fire prevention probably the greatest tool in the fire service arsenal, as well as changes in buildings codes and materials. As towns and cities sprang up in every corner of this land, water systems followed, with fire hydrants and pressurized water systems, allowing firefighters who man fire apparatus, train and provide 24/7, 365-days-a-year protection to put the wet stuff on the red stuff in a much faster and safer fashion.

Today, there are some 30,125 fire departments across the United States, including 709 here in Oklahoma — an average of about 9 per county. Here in Garfield County, we have 13 fire departments — one paid and 12 volunteer fire companies.

In the mid-1990s, Garfield County voters approved a quarter penny rural fire sales tax, which helped make the volunteer fire departments in this county some of the best equipped and best trained in the state. While making all citizens safer from fire, it enhanced emergency medical services across the county and greatly aided in lowering fire insurance ratings and fire premiums to home and business owners.

Most Americans still are shocked to learn that 71 percent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers, and that only 8 percent work at fully paid fire departments, with 21 percent a mix of paid and volunteer.

While many of us don’t think about fire until it happens to us or to our neighbor, all of us fully expect — when we dial 911 and have an emergency — that someone trained in handling that emergency is going to respond.

And, far more likely than not here in America, that person is going to be an unpaid, yet dedicated and trained volunteer.



Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking