Volunteer Firefighters Deserve More Respect Than They Get

Without these true heroes, Pennsylvania would go broke

Firefighters hold a special place of reverence in America, especially since the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks put a national spotlight on the inherent heroism and the sacrifice that every firefighter is willing to make. Volunteers are also revered in this country. Churches, schools, communities and our government encourage volunteerism to help solve problems and help people who may have slipped through the cracks. Volunteers are a micro solution to macro problems. They are the mortar that holds the foundation of America together.

And yet when you put the two words together—volunteer and firefighter—instead of veneration, there is an inexplicable apathy, even derision.

Volunteer firefighters serve over nine million people in Pennsylvania and account for 97 percent of its fire departments. It is estimated that the noble self-sacrifice of volunteer firefighters saves Pennsylvania taxpayers over four billion dollars a year. If volunteer departments disappeared tomorrow, the state would simply go broke.

And yet they are disappearing as the possible sacrifice has not become worth the lack of recognition. There is an expectation that someone will show up if a fire breaks out in your home, with little or no acknowledgement that, for most, that will only happen because of the selflessness of a handful of heroic souls.

Think about it for a moment. In most of the communities in our area, some of your neighbors, who have family, jobs and other responsibilities just like you, are willing to drop what they are doing at a moment’s notice to save lives and protect property. They are willing to train for that moment. They are willing to clean trucks and the station house and keep the equipment in top shape. They are willing to risk their lives for people they don’t know. And then they have to stand at intersections with boots to beg for money from the same people protect, many of whom look the other way.

It is no wonder that volunteer fire departments are closing up and consolidating. It is no wonder that the number of volunteers is getting dangerously low. Why risk all when the same public you are trying to defend ignores your effort?

I would like you to help me put an end to this societal injustice. I am proposing an annual Volunteer Firefighters’ Parade. This is something I have wanted to do for some time, and I’ve even had discussions with TV stations, communities and sponsors. Everyone was for the idea and then nothing happened. But I have never let go of the idea because I think it is that important. And besides, I made a promise.

It was 2002 and I was the host of Live@Issue on NBC10. Inspired by the courage and commitment of 14-year-old Brookhaven volunteer firefighter Chris Kanga, who was killed by a car as he was rushing to respond to a fire alarm on his bicycle, I decided to make the show about the sacrifice of volunteer firefighters.

One of my guests was Leona Fraim Clark from Upper Darby. Her father, Walter Fraim, was the chief of my hometown Lansdowne Fire Department. He died fighting a fire on June 10, 1940. There were no benefits for volunteers back then, and the family was left destitute.

She has been fighting to have her father remembered ever since. She fought to get a National Volunteer Firefighters Day. Congress passed a resolution in 1985 and declared August 3rd the day. But, of course, no one remembers it. We should.

Leona said to me during the show that she would like to have her father remembered one day with a parade. That one day should be August 3, 2012. We need to remember the sacrifice of Walter Fraim and all other area firefighters who died protecting us. We need to honor all the brave men and women who volunteer to protect us. 

We need a first annual Volunteer Firefighters’ Parade. If you are interested in helping put the parade together, please contact me at FireFighterParade@yahoo.com.

We have a year to get a site, sponsors, a media partner and participants. It’s the least we can do. After all, heroes deserve a parade.

Larry Mendte writes for The Philly Post every Thursday. See his previous columns here. To watch his video commentaries, go to wpix.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @LarryMendte.