A Look Back at the NVFC: 45 Years of Providing a Voice for the Nation’s Volunteer Responders

By Philip C. Stittleburg

I wasn’t in the room where it happened back in November 1975, when representatives from seven state fire associations met in Chicago to discuss establishing a national organization to represent volunteer firefighters. My home state of Wisconsin was represented, though, and apparently drew the short straw, as it was tasked with preparing and filing the articles of incorporation for the newly minted National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), thus creating the Wisconsin corporation that the NVFC remains to this day.

The organization’s first official meeting as the NVFC was held 45 years ago, on March 15, 1976. The purpose of the organization was to provide a voice for the volunteers in matters of interest to the fire service, a mission that remains true today. According to minutes from the first meeting, “In the past, [the volunteer fire service] have had no influence on legislation, appointments to the National Fire Prevention & Control Administration, location selection and type of National Fire Academy, and other matters of importance to us. The council provides a forum for the state volunteer firemen’s associations to speak for the members and thus assist in formulation of unified positions.”

And the NVFC got off to a fast start. Thanks to the 1973 release of America Burning, the American fire service was beginning to enjoy a previously undreamt-of level of recognition from the federal government. Although only in formal existence for just a few months, the NVFC sent its vice chair (later chair) Jim Morgan (WI) to the White House in October 1976, where he spent 35 minutes meeting with President Ford and informing him about the volunteer fire service. It’s likely that he mentioned our request for a $750 federal income tax exemption for compensated volunteers, proving that the past sometimes predicts the future. Unfortunately, although the NVFC has testified before Congress on behalf of the volunteer fire service on numerous occasions, this presidential meeting was a feat that has never been repeated.

In 1979, an historic federally-sponsored meeting was held, ultimately known as the Stonebridge conference, a nod to the Colorado ski resort where it took place. For the first time, volunteers from all over the United State gathered for several days to plan the future of the volunteer fire service and the government’s role in it. A second “Stonebridge” would follow a year or two later, this time at the recently dedicated National Fire Academy.

By the time I arrived as a board member in the fall of 1979, the NVFC had already grown from 12 state members at the time of incorporation to 22 states. Jimmy Carter was president, and the nation was still suffering from a fuel crisis after Iran severely reduced its oil production. Considerable discussion at my first meeting was about the federal gas rationing system and the possible need to obtain an exemption for volunteer firefighters so that they could continue to respond to calls. Ultimately, as it turned out, no exemption was needed.

As membership increased, so did the workload, but there was still no staff or office, nor would there be for many years. Nonetheless, even then, the board met semi-annually as it has continued to do ever since, although it would be years later when Washington, DC, would be designated as the permanent spring meeting site.

Even in the early years, the NVFC enjoyed exceptional leadership and a remarkable board of directors. Jim Monihan (DE) had just begun what would become a 12-year long stretch as chair when I arrived, and the NVFC was still young enough to have members of the Greatest Generation among us. I sat spellbound as I listened to Pete Ackerman (NJ) share his experiences over Europe as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 with Walter Drinkard (AL), a radio operator with the Eighth Air Force. I was silently amused, imagining Walter, who spoke at glacial speed in his deep Southern accent, talking on the airplane radio. Only later did I learn that he used Morse code.

The NVFC’s borders expanded dramatically when it became a member of the Federation of World Volunteer Firefighters Associations (FWVFA), organized in 1982 in Tokyo, Japan, financed by a subsidy from the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, and chaired by Ryoichi Sasakawa. In 1983, the NVFC hosted a regional meeting of the FWVFA in Seattle, but that was only the warmup. Three years later, in September 1986, the United Nations building in New York was the site of a world meeting of volunteer firefighters sponsored by the FWVFA. The goal was to bring together representatives from 180 nations, and while I don’t know if that ambitious goal was achieved, I believe that well in excess of 100 nations were represented. The meetings were conducted in the UN General Assembly meeting room, complete with translation services into a myriad of languages. Although the FWVFA continued for many more years, it never claimed another achievement to match this.

As the NVFC’s reach expanded, so did its needs, leading to the establishment of the NVFC Foundation on January 13, 1989. This enabled us to engage in activities beyond the NVFC’s usual scope, such as research and training, as well as providing an opportunity to increase our business contacts. As it happened, the timing was exquisite. Only a couple of years later, thanks to the efforts of Congressman Curt Weldon, Congress authorized the minting of the Ben Franklin Firefighters Silver Medal, with the sale proceeds designated to several fire service foundations. This wholly unexpected windfall resulted in about $216,000 coming into the Foundation’s coffers and funded many of its projects, as well as participation in several NFPA technical committees, for many years.

Just like the volunteer fire service at the local level, the NVFC has always struggled for funding. However, it received a big boost when US Tobacco arranged with then-chairman Fred Allinson (WA) for a series of large donations ultimately totaling over $1.5 million to be used for education, training, recruitment and retention, and the purchase of personal protective equipment. In order to accommodate the receipt and administration of the funds, we incorporated the 21st Century Fund on February 20, 1996. The Fund was quick to share its good fortune, paying an initial sum of $10,000 to one fire association in every state, whether or not an NVFC member, followed the next year by an additional $4,000, a decision that resulted in several states soon applying for membership. The Fund also contributed $50,000 to a new and relatively unknown organization, the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Fund, which had been founded in 1992. This was probably the largest donation that it had received to that point. And, of course, our 21st Century Fund continues to be an important component of the NVFC’s financial stability.

Over the intervening years, the NVFC has continued to grow in influence and sophistication, maintaining a trajectory established way back in 1976. In 2001, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program began, and from that came the Fire Prevention and Safety Grants and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants, both of which have been important sources of support for the NVFC’s initiatives. We now have directors from 47 state associations, an office staff of 11, and a membership over 25,000 strong. Our groundbreaking programs include Fire Corps, the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program, the Make Me A Firefighter campaign, the National Junior Firefighter Program, the Share the Load support program, and the Wildland Fire Assessment Program. We have representatives on 20 NFPA standards-setting committees, participate in many national fire and EMS work groups and task forces, and fight for legislation that benefits volunteer responders. Our web site is filled with tools, resources, and training to assist responders and department leaders in addressing critical and emerging issues.

As an organization, the NVFC continues to identify and anticipate the needs of the volunteer fire and emergency medical services, and provide the resources, advocacy, and training to help our nation’s volunteers in the ways that matter most. While it is sometimes daunting to consider future challenges, it is reassuring to see that we have overcome obstacles for nearly a half century. In the face of hard times, the volunteer emergency services will persevere, and the NVFC will be here to support them. History does indeed repeat itself.

Philip C. Stittleburg has been an NVFC director from Wisconsin since 1979 and served as chair of the organization from 2001-2015. He joined the volunteer fire service in 1972 and has served as chief of the LaFarge (WI) Fire Department since 1977.