International Association of Fire Fighters is anti-volunteer

Some of the most vocal opponents to volunteers being used to replace employees and save money are volunteer managers and volunteer management consultants.

Yes, the people who are in charge of promoting volunteer involvement in nonprofits and in singing the praises of volunteers are the same people who balk at the idea of paid staff being let go and replaced with unpaid staff in order to balance the books.

We volunteer managers and volunteer management consultants believe passionately that volunteers have a much more important value than saving money:

  • involving volunteers gives community members a first-hand look at organizations and issues important to their neighborhoods, environments and families.
  • involving volunteers gives the community a feeling of ownership in an organization or issue.
  • involving volunteers creates advocates for an organization or issue, advocates that a lot of government officials and potential funders will listen to with particular interest since they have no financial stake in the organization they are promoting.
  • involving volunteers gives a diversity of people a voice in the organizations that involve them.
  • involving volunteers augments the work of paid employees.
  • some tasks are more appropriate for volunteers than paid staff, not because of level of responsibility but because of the kind of task. This can include everything from mentoring programs to disaster services (the majority of services by the American Red Cross and Girl Scouts of the USA, to name but two organizations, are delivered by volunteers, and that is NOT to save money!)

We volunteer managers and volunteer management consultants continually speak out against volunteers used as replacements for paid staff in order to save money.

So it’s with a great deal of confusion, sadness, and even anger that I recently discovered that the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union in the USA representing professional firefighters, is against volunteer firefighters:

Let me be as clear as possible. We as a union, by Convention actions, do not represent or condone volunteer, part-time or paid on-call fire fighters… We as a union, by Convention actions, do not represent or condone volunteer, part-time or paid on-call fire fighters… Although an IAFF member may make a personal choice to join a volunteer fire department, that personal choice is one that can have serious consequences under our Constitution, including the loss of IAFF membership.

Harold A. Schaitberger
General President
International Association of Fire Fighters
September 20, 2002 letter to all IAFF Affiliate Presidents 1

Volunteer firefighters could have stood side-by-side with IAFF members and fought against budget cuts or efforts to replace paid staff with volunteers over the years. Volunteer firefighters could have fought together to ensure firefighting programs are fully funded. They could have been united in calls for firefighters, paid or volunteer, to receive all the training that is needed among all firefighters, paid or unpaid. Instead, the IAFF has declared war on volunteer firefighters — and volunteers in general.

In a meeting with a representative of the State of Oregon Fire Training Section last year, I was informed that the agency makes no distinction among professionals or volunteers when delivering or certifying firefighting training. To them, they are all firefighters, and they are judged on their official credentials and experience, period, not whether or not they are paid.

As it should be.

Before 1850, no city in the USA had fully paid, full-time firefighters.2 Cities began to employ full-time firefighters when people realized full-time firefighters were needed to deal with the number and kind of fires happening in large cities. The USA is now a mix of paid and volunteer-staffed fire houses. But at some point, some paid fire fighters in the USA decided volunteers were a threat. And the IAFF has made that schism official.

This is in stark contrast with Germany, a country that is frequently derided by various folks here in the USA for being too inflexible in its labor laws and government social safety nets, all of which are most definitely pro-labor. It may come as a shock to you, if that’s your point of view, that Germany has a much longer tradition of volunteer firefighting than the USA; many of its volunteer fire companies are much older than our own country. Paid firefighters see no threat from volunteer firefighters, and the firefighting union there happily allows professional firefighters to volunteer in fire fighting stations in their own villages where they live (in contrast to the big cities where they work). I can find no record of a professional fire station in Germany having been converted into an all-volunteer station in order to save money. Even now, Germany has more volunteer firefighters, per capita, than in the USA, and no professional firefighter has lost his or her job to a volunteer.

IAFF’s position on volunteer firefighters is outdated, misguided, outrageous and wrong-headed. It does nothing to protect the jobs of paid firefighters. The consequences of that stand are to the detriment of communities, citizens and environments — and even to paid firefighters themselves.

I could also write an entire blog about the fallacy of the word “International” in IAFF’s title, but I’ll save that for another time.

I hope that state and local volunteer management associations all over the USA will take a public stand on this issue. Please blog about it. Please put something in your Facebook status about it. Tweet about it. Put something in your newsletter about it. Maybe we can help IAFF see that volunteers are not a threat, that volunteers are, in fact, in support of career firefighters. Maybe IAFF members will seek new leadership that understands this.


1 Schaitberger’s comments have disappeared from the IAFF web site since this blog was originally published.

2 Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976.

17 thoughts on “International Association of Fire Fighters is anti-volunteer

  1. Vm Vpm

    I love the way you have framed this argument Jayne.You have wisely pointed out a crucial fact. Professional and effective volunteer managers simply will not tolerate, at their organisations, any attempt to use volunteers as a replacement for paid labor. It???s almost a given among the colleagues I know. It has become so ethically ingrained into the volunteer management ethos that it begs the question whether the union had any semblance of dialogue with the Volunteer Management sector. Maybe they should if they haven???t. Here is an issue that a national association for volunteer management can get its teeth stuck into. I am still a little unclear on who that organisation might be in the USA.I have, throughout my career, talked with unions on the matter of volunteerism with positive outcomes. So have colleagues of mine. It???s amazing what honest dialogue and transparency can achieve. An effective and professional volunteer management sector need not be enemies with any union movement. Au contraire ??? they can be their best allies ensuring volunteers are never used inappropriately. After all that is the lifeblood of ethical volunteer management! Thanks Jayne for raising an important issue ??? although for me the worrying underlying issue is the lack of action on the part of our the volunteer management sector in combating misperceptions on volunteering as well as the lack of the ???recognition factor??? in terms of been engaged in dialogue when it comes to these matters.Too often Volunteer Management is excluded from the narrative. For that we only have ourselves to blame. I would make a fairly safe bet that unions don???t even know that a volunteer management sector exists not to mind a professional body for same! A first step in addressing this will be professional volunteer management associations around the world taking heed of your call to make a stand on this issue. Let us know when this happens!

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks SO MUCH for the comment, DJ! I wish the USA had a vibrant, responsive national association for volunteer managers. Sadly, we do not. So that’s why I called on state and local organizations to take the lead in saying something about this outrageous stance by the IAFF.

  3. Wendy Moore

    I too share your concerns Jayne and DJ. There needs to be a lot more dialogue and better understanding of the roles of firefighters in both the paid and voluntary capacity.My understanding of the structure of the Fire and Rescue Service in Australia is as follows:-???
    In densely populated urban areas, the firefighters are paid and work full time.???
    In less populated areas, the firefighters are on-call. They are usually in regular paid employment outside the Fire and Rescue Service but can be contacted via pager to respond to a fire. These firefighters, known as Auxiliary firefighters, are paid only when they are called out to attend a fire. They receive the same training as full time paid firefighters.???
    In rural areas the firefighters are volunteers. They are known as the Rural Fire Service. Their role is mostly to put out grass and vegetation fires. While they do receive training, they are not required to do the same level of training as full time paid and on-call auxiliary firefighters.Fire and Rescue services in Australia are managed at a state level where each state or territory has its own fire and rescue service. A member of my own family is in a paid position in the Fire and Rescue Service in Australia. She is also a volunteer firefighter.In Australia opinions towards volunteer firefighters tend to vary. I would suggest that any negativity regarding engaging volunteer firefighters would be based on preconceived ideas or perhaps a lack of understanding of the roles of volunteer firefighters. I have included links to a couple of websites below which outlines the role of the volunteers within the Rural Fire Service. I think the value placed on volunteer firefighters is self evident in the paragraphs contained on these websites.The NSW Rural Fire Service, the world’s largest fire service. Our 70,000 volunteer members provide emergency services to over 95 percent of NSW.ttp:// Rural Fire Service is an integral part of Queensland Fire and Rescue Service, with a proud history spanning over 50 years. The Rural Fire Service provides fire management for rural and semi-rural communities (outside urban fire levy areas) across approximately 93% of the area of the State. Services include fire mitigation, prescribed burning, volunteer training, community awareness and education. For more information or for the latest bushfire risk information, visit the Rural Fire Service website at

  4. Susie

    I agree! Volutneering is about giving back to the community…not helping to save money. Geez. What is this world coming to?

  5. Sarone A. Kennedy, Sr.

    I found out today 28 June 2011) that the IAFF should be renamed the U S and Canada Association of Professional Firefighters. Approximately 80% of the firefighters in the U S are volunteers but the mis-named IAFF is not for them or for persons outside of the U. S or Canada. What a sad commentary.

  6. tony

    IAFF Rocks!! Damn re ro’s thinking they can do the job a career firefighter can do, that is why we are called professionals!!! Look at the differences, career departments give better care and response times, fire double every minute, and average response times are less then 5 min for career compared to 10 for volunteers. Why do you think the number of volunteers are dropping and career are going up? Because career gets the job done!!! Stop being wanna be’s and leave the job to us

    1. Casey Smith

      The wannabes have been doing the job since we’ve been a nation. They have sacrificed sleep,hot meals, and valuable family time since the fire services beginnings. Obviously the history and traditions of the fire service have been lost,otherwise you’d have more respect for those who came before you,career and volunteer alike. I’m not gonna get into a who’s better conversation. Too many variables apply, however I have seen bad career depts. as well as bad volunteer depts. and visa versa. I’ve seen excellent volunteer depts. that provide excellent service to the communities in which they serve. Before I sign off I want to make this point very clear. We were never against union firefighters. It was never our intent or goal to take jobs away from Union firefighters. The overwhelming majority of volunteers have the utmost respect for the full-timers. All we want is to support and augment the full-time staff in providing better service to our communities by having more manpower and equipment available to do the job at hand. C.Smith / 15+ yrs. CFF, 9+ yrs. Full time FF/EMT- Int.

      1. jcravens Post author

        Thanks so much for replying, Casey. I hate the term “wannabes” for volunteers. And I think your comments represent the vast majority of volunteer firefighters who want to remain volunteers and not pursue a career in such.

  7. Anonymous

    Great comment from Tony, showing everything that is wrong with IAFF and professional firefighters. Illustrates the problem better than anything I can say. It energizes me to keep the pressure on IAFF for this misguided policy, and outdated view of volunteers.

  8. Sarone A. Kennedy, Sr.

    <html> <head> <style><!– .hmmessage P { margin:0px; padding:0px } body.hmmessage { font-size: 10pt; font-family:Tahoma } –></style></head> <body class=’hmmessage’><div dir=’ltr’> Such arrogant, narrow-minded, insensitive drivel should not come from a brother/sister firefighter. We all put our lives on the line (literally). If my property is in danger of fire, I really do not care if the people who attack and extinguish it are "wanna be’s" or not. The reality is that many communities only have volunteers, primarily because of budget constraints. I am Safety and Training Officer for the only fire service where I live and we are all volunteers. Such elitist classism as made about volunteers, is an example of the need for real world training. I mean WORLD, not just the well-to-do speck where he/she serves.<BR><br><BR>I encourage volunteerism as being the primary or initial offering to society and not pay for work. This is the first instance of this type of comment that I have encountered. I hope that it is the last.<br><BR><br><BR>S. A. Kennedy, Sr.<BR>Bahamas<BR><div><div style="width:600px;font-size:12px;font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;line-height:18px" class="ecxPosterousEmail"><div style="border-top:1px solid #ccc;padding-top:10px"><div>

    </div> </div> <img height="1" src="; width="1"></div>

    </div></body> </html>

  9. Anonymous

    Great response, Sarone! If it’s one thing I’ve learned in working with both employees and volunteers delivering critical services: a paycheck does NOT better guarantee quality nor success.

  10. Sarone A. Kennedy, Sr.

    <html> <head> <style><!– .hmmessage P { margin:0px; padding:0px } body.hmmessage { font-size: 10pt; font-family:Tahoma } –></style></head> <body class=’hmmessage’><div dir=’ltr’> It is totally unthinkable that anyone, in today’s world would use only their situation to measure the rest of the world by. The provision of a service and not based on whether the person is a volunteer or "professional". It should be based on the effectiveness and standards for that service. I too, disagree with replacing a "professional" with a volunteer, IF that volunteer is not capable of providing service of the same or better quality. Of course, some communities only have volunteers. I will stop now because i am getting miffed.<BR><br><BR>S. A. Kennedy, Sr.<br><BR>Safety &amp; Training Officer<BR>Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire Rescue<BR>Bahamas<BR><br><div></div></div></body></html>

  11. Daniel McDonald

    Just read this tonight. Great post! The person saying “leave the job to the career guys instead of wannabes” that’s bar none the most ignorant thing I’ve read! I’m a volunteer firefighter and I challenge him to let’s compare certifications. I’ve got the same amount of certifications as just about any “career” guy. Not only that, but I had NO CHOICE, but to get all those certifications, it’s department policy that every firefighter has to get those certifications. A paycheck doesn’t make you a better firefighter. One more thing about the stupid career vs volunteer stupidity, if a firefighter dies in the line of duty they don’t check to see if he/she is career or volunteer. Every brother and sister is honored regardless of whether they’re career or volunteer. If somebody told me the brothers we’ve lost aren’t as valuable as career guys I’d punch them repeatedly in the mouth!

  12. Michael

    I started my fire service career as a volunteer and I have since been a career firefighter for the last 16 years. I work side by side with volunteers and have no issues, as they are hard-working and strive to improve like all of us. The Fire Service is my career. Because of this I am “all-in” performing my shifts, delivering department training and teaching students (volunteers) for the college. I have a distinct advantage of improving my skills apposed to a volunteer not because I am any better, but simply because I am not working 9-5 at another job. That is the difference.
    The other point that I believe is missed is the IAFF is a Labor Union. There number one job is to protect my safety and job security. Why would that be surprising that they do not want me to volunteer at another department? They want to grow with more career positions in it’s ranks.
    I commend anyone that wishes to give back to their community and I will fight fire with anyone that has skills, Union or not. Your comment on not emphasizing replacing career jobs with volunteers is great. Please keep in mind though not all organizations share your feelings. Some organizations use threats of volunteers during contract negotiations. This of course does not help volunteer/career relations. I appreciate your view in your blog and I hope you understand other points of view as well.


    1. jcravens Post author

      I have a long, long track record of being opposed to volunteers being involved in order to save money and replace career folks – not just in firefighting. There are several blog entries talking about this very subject. Also,I hope you will appreciate that, just as there are roles more appropriate for career folks than volunteers, there are things volunteers are better for than career folks, as this blog details. A lot of communities are getting really tired of career firefighters commuting into their communities from elsewhere for the job, staying for just a year or two, and then moving on, while local people that would love to volunteer, that would love to go through all the same training, and would be in that community long term and stay with the fire house long term, are passed over.

      1. Michael

        I agree with you on. An example of this is I volunteer for the state park system cleaning up campgrounds. This provides more time and energy for paid staff to do other jobs. As far as the IAFF, I see it as:
        Their priority is me. My priority is the community.
        Great conversation, and I appreciate deferent view points.


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