The NVFC: A Look Back at the First 40 Years

By Kevin D. Quinn, NVFC Chairman

2016 marks a milestone for the National Volunteer Fire Council – we celebrate 40 years as an organization. As we begin this anniversary year, I want to take a few moments to reflect on where we’ve been and what lies ahead.

I should start off by noting that the state of the fire service looked quite different in 1976 than it does today. A firefighter’s primary operational responsibility was just that – fighting fires. In fact, a report issued just a few years prior called “America’s Burning” concluded the U.S. surpassed all other industrialized nations in annual fire death rates and property loss, and that more needed to be done to prevent and control fires. The U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Academy had only recently been created, and the field of EMS was in its infancy. There was no Congressional Fire Service Caucus to focus on legislation affecting the fire service. There were less safety precautions to protect firefighters, and risks such as heart attack, cancer, PTSD, and suicide weren’t part of the discussion.

Also of great significance 40 years ago is that 85% of firefighters were volunteers, yet volunteers had virtually no influence on federal legislation and no representation in national matters of importance to the fire service.

It was in this climate that the NVFC first emerged. The concept for an organization that was devoted strictly to representing the volunteer was formed when representatives from seven state firefighters’ associations met on November 29, 1975 in Chicago. This group realized there was a need for the volunteer to have a dedicated and unified voice at the national level. They knew it was critical for the needs of volunteers to be heard in Congress, in federal agencies, in developing standards, and when working with other national organizations.

On March 15, 1976, representatives from 18 states met in Memphis, TN, and the NVFC was officially organized. The idea was that representatives from every state’s primary volunteer fire service organization would comprise the NVFC Board of Directors and speak as a unified voice for the volunteer in national matters.

The organization has grown by leaps and bounds since 1976. We now have a board comprised of 49 state fire service associations (one state doesn’t currently have an association representing volunteers). As a membership association, we now also have nearly 20,000 individual and department members.

Over the past 40 years, the NVFC has been there to meet the challenges volunteers face and address the critical issues head-on. Some of the groundbreaking work of the Council includes the following:

  • Helped get the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program established, which has provided over $10.5 billion to the fire service through AFG and SAFER since the programs were created. We continue to advocate for funding for the AFG, SAFER, and FP&S grants in the federal budget each year.
  • Have representation on AFG/SAFER/FP&S criteria development and peer review panels, NFPA Technical Committees, and other emergency service task forces, work groups, and committees to make sure the voice of the volunteer is heard
  • Formed the EMS/Rescue Section to focus on issues specifically affecting volunteer EMS and rescue providers
  • Educate responders about heart attack risk and prevention in order to combat the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths through the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program
  • Provide help to firefighters, emergency personnel, and their families struggling with behavioral health issues through the Share the Load program and Fire/EMS Helpline
  • Work with other organizations and interest groups to raise awareness and reduce risks of firefighter cancer
  • Connect community members with departments to expand capacity by assisting with non-operational tasks, such as fire prevention education, through Fire Corps
  • Foster the next generation of first responders through the National Junior Firefighter Program
  • Provide innovative tools and ready-to-use resources to help departments recruit and retain members with our new Make Me A Firefighter campaign
  • Make training more easily accessible to volunteers through our Virtual Classroom and partnerships with training agencies, organizations, and companies

Looking at where the fire service stands today, much has changed since 1976. The fire death rate per million population declined by 70% from 1977 to 2013, according to the U.S. Fire Protection Association (NFPA). On-duty firefighter fatalities have dropped as well, from an average of 152 per year in the late 1970s to an average of 72 per year from 2010-2014. An NFPA report attributes this change to decreases in sudden cardiac deaths and deaths at the fireground. Technological advances have changed how we are equipped and how we respond, significantly enhancing firefighter safety.

Yet we also face new challenges. We have much greater awareness now of the dangers we face – not just from fighting fires, but from cancer, PTSD, vehicle crashes, and heart attacks. We must continue to work with responders, departments, other organizations, and state and federal agencies to lower the risks and protect our first responders from all hazards.

Fire departments today are offering increasingly specialized and diverse services, from EMS, to HazMat response, to search and rescue, to fire prevention education, and more. In fact, the number of fire calls per year is less than half of what it was in 1980, while the number of EMS calls has quadrupled. Offering increased services has many benefits, but it also means additional training and time commitments needed from volunteers, who already have limited time to give.

Volunteers still make up a majority of the fire service at 69%, but with changing economic and social climates and increased training requirements, many departments are struggling to recruit and retain enough volunteers to continue to provide the level of service communities have come to expect. Age is also an issue – departments are finding it increasingly harder to recruit younger volunteers to fill the ranks as the older volunteers look towards retirement.

As we move ahead, fire service leaders need to be focusing on:

  • Marketing: When my generation joined the fire service, we did it to help our neighbors. We shied away from the limelight and focused strictly on the job. However, we need to change our mindsets to adapt to today’s environment. We must raise our public image by learning how to promote the importance of our fire departments and market the great work our fire departments do. We must be willing to ask for quality candidates to join our team instead of expecting them to come to us.
  • Research and Data: There is a lot of data available these days, but it doesn’t do any good if we don’t use it. We need to use data to assist our departments in being safe, progressive, and in good standing. We must keep up with the research and utilize results to keep our volunteers and residents safe.
  • All-Hazards Fire Department: Fire departments serve communities in more ways now than ever before. Therefore, we must prepare our volunteers as an all-hazards fire department. Clearly defined mission statements, training, and portrayal to the public will enhance safety and growth.
  • Today’s Fire Danger: Fires today are burning faster and hotter, and we need to stay current on fire service trends in keeping volunteers safe.  Strategies, tactics, and tools have changed – we must all work to ensure that Everyone Goes Home.

I also challenge each of you to be an active participant in the national voice of the volunteer. If you are not already a member, join the NVFC and be part of our efforts. Our strength is in our numbers, and together we allow the voice of the nation’s over 788,000 volunteers to be heard

Through all the changes we have seen, one thing remains certain. The NVFC will continue to serve the boots-on-the-ground volunteer firefighter, EMT, and rescue worker, and we will never shy away from the big issues facing our constituents. Today, the volunteer has a strong voice at the table when it comes to critical fire and emergency service issues.  We will continue to advocate for the volunteer, develop new resources, and implement innovative programs that will strengthen the volunteer emergency services and help volunteers overcome any obstacles.

As we look towards the future, we must remember our past. I know our organization’s founders must be proud of how the organization has evolved and how it fulfills the mission they formulated in 1976. As we pass this milestone, I am excited to see what lies ahead.