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Right Way to Put Out the Fire

March 03, 1985

When firefighters roll up to a burning building and put out the flames, the people who sounded the alarm are not likely to ask, or even care, whether some or all of the crew are volunteers. Judging by the performance of the volunteers, there is no reason that anyone should.

Volunteer firefighters are not new. Nationally, they outnumber full-time crews by three to one and an estimated 85% of the fire departments in the nation are all-volunteer.

The Orange County Fire Department, which provides fire protection for all of the county's unincorporated area and 10 of its 26 cities, is not an all-volunteer agency. Neither is it all-professional. It uses a combination approach with volunteers, who make up nearly half the force, supplementing the full-time firefighters.

The fact that Orange County still uses volunteers so widely has become an issue because of the county's urbanization and the recent assignment of 25 volunteers to supplement the 15 full-time professional firefighters in Station No. 26 in Irvine. Some people want full-time crews.

The fire service also would probably prefer to have nothing but full-time, paid professionals in its force of nearly 1,100 firefighters, but economics in this post-Proposition 13 period dictates otherwise.

Prior to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, engine companies responded to calls with crews of five or six. After the voters spoke, and after the subsequent loss of property tax revenues, crews were cut back to three. Some fire captains say that if the county now used only full-time crews, they might have only two firefighters in some engine companies, and much older equipment than they now have.

According to fire officials, it costs nearly $500,000 a year to staff a station with three full-time three-person shifts. The same station, they say, can be staffed with 25 volunteers for only about $70,000 a year. So, fire officials claim, they can provide a much greater level of fire protection for the money spent by mixing the crews. The alternative, without the volunteers, would in some cases be no one available to respond.

It's a strong argument backed by performance. We have seen no convincing evidence to indicate that the use of volunteers is endangering life or property. They pass rigid training and testing requirements and their use has made no detectable difference on the county's fire insurance rates.

We do agree that in some areas where special hazards exist, such as high-rise structures, refineries and storage sites of dangerous chemicals, the use of the specially trained professionals would be in order. Otherwise volunteers can, and have, helped fill the void between the protection that full-time crews can provide and what is needed.

The county Fire Department is limited by budget constraints. Residents cannot continue to vote down tax increases and demand champagne services on beer budgets. Any community that wants only full-time paid firefighters can contract for them--as long as it is willing to pay the taxes needed to support that level of service.

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