A confidential insurance industry fire inspection report may be the death knell for the volunteer fire service in Chester, Pa., and open a new era of improved fire protection for that city through a fully paid firefighting force.
The gradual phasing out of the volunteers in Chester (pop. 56,331) may well spark a trend in other cities and communities still largely dependent on volunteers for their fire fighting capability.
Chester Fire Administrator William Sharpless, a former volunteer firefighter himself, said that changing times means the eventual end of volunteers in the city.
The ironic twist in the Chester situation is that for years the volunteers ruled supreme and fought the paid men on any issue that might upset their authority. Prior to 1961 when Chester's 29 paid drivers applied for and received a charter as IAFF Local 1400, they were employed by the city's five volunteer fire companies and not the City of Chester. Thus they were deprived of the benefits enjoyed by other public employees in the state under existing civil service laws.
With the backing of the IAFF, the Local 1400 members went to court to prove that they were employees of the city and not the volunteer fire company. After lengthy and costly litigation all the way up to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court it was determined that the paid firefighters of Chester were, indeed, employees of the city. As a result of that decision, coupled with the recently revealed insurance industry report mentioned above, the volunteer firefighters' days may be numbered.
The fire inspection survey talks about the adequate water supply for fighting fire and an inadequate fire communications system. However, most interest is likely to be focused on the recommendations for more paid firefighters and full time chiefs. The survey was issued by Insurance Service Office, an agent for a large number of insurance companies. Similar surveys are made in municipalities throughout the nation every 15 or 20 years. The last survey for Chester is dated 1955. Information in the report has the potential to change fire insurance rates within the city.
The report recommends “at least four members, including a competent company officer, be on duty at all times with each engine and ladder company.” It goes on to say that six members on duty is considered “standard”. Only one of Chester’s five fire companies meets even the substandard four-man requirement. “The chief and sufficient assistant chiefs (should) be appointed on a full-paid basis,” the report says. Chester’s fire chief and his two assistants are now volunteer. The city also does not have a “full-time training officer,” also recommended.
James McDonald, President of Local 1400, said he agrees with the recommendations of the report. The insurance inspectors say that from 2 to 15 volunteers usually report for a fire. McDonald said that about a third of the time only two volunteers will show up. Fire Administrator Sharpless agreed with his estimate. The insurance report lists 595 volunteer firemen, but most of them are not active firefighters. Sharpless said there may be about 75 “active” volunteers, but he said only about 20 men can be expected to go to fires week after week. “Those are the men who have their hearts in it,” he said. There are 45 paid firefighter, 15 for each eight-hour shift. McDonald said that, when enough volunteers do not report, “it’s pretty tough for a man driving his engine to put the machine in-service, pull the line off by himself and then take the line into the fire himself.”
While trying to improve the fire protection services for the taxpayers of Chester, the local has also managed to upgrade the wages and working conditions of its membership. According to President McDonald, the local recently went to arbitration to win a first collective bargaining contract for its membership. The new pact includes a complete a complete hospitalization plan paid for by the city, clothing allowance, improved vacation plan, and other fringes.
“We’ve been through a lot in 13 years since we have been chartered,” President McDonald said, “but it shows what a small but determined group of firefighters can do with the backing of our great parent organization, the IAFF. I hope other small locals like ours will also find the courage to hang in there when the going gets tough. All that blood, sweet, and tears has finally paid off!”
Source – IAFF Magazine February 1974
Local 1400 was chartered July 13,1961 by the following members -
Harry Cornish Jr.
Ed Leamy Sr.
Herm Dickerson Jr.
Hartley Haywood Jr.
Joseph Rhoads Sr.
Lewis Ogden Jr.