Historically, there are three ideas involved in a profession, organization, learning, and a spirit of public service. These are essential. The remaining idea, that of gaining a livelihood,
-- Dean Roscoe Pound
What is a Professional Volunteer Firefighter?
There are many who in our modern world, consider themselves a "professional". There are professional football players. There are professional computer programmers, there are even people who consider themselves as a professional cell phone salesman. Among all of these claims of these persons to be "professionals", the true meaning of the term has become lost.
Dean Roscoe Pound was a legal scholar who went on to become Dean of Harvard Law School. While at Harvard Law, Pound authored a piece on professionalism. Although Pound's paper was geared toward recognizing professionalism in the context of the legal profession, Pound lays out several points that have direct parallels to standards of professionalism in the fire service.
Pound makes it clear in his article that the true definition of professionalism doesn't have to include a paycheck. Pound's article begins with "[h]istorically, there are three ideas involved in a profession, organization, learning, and a spirit of public service. These are essential. The remaining idea, that of gaining a livelihood, is incidental"(1). Pound's three ideas, or for the purposes of our discussion "factors", are extremely relatable in the context of the volunteer fire service. Pound goes on to state that "What is most important, however, a profession is practiced in a spirit of public service. 'A trade,' says Professor Palmer, 'aims primarily at personal gain; a profession at the exercise of powers beneficial to mankind'"(2).
Pound's first factor to define a profession, organization, is one that the volunteer fire service unarguably has. In texts too numerous to mention, it is widely known the the Founders of our nation were volunteer firemen. Washington, Franklin, all were volunteer firemen in the early days of our country(3). Pound argues that older professions which are generally more established and have organization are more legitimate than newer "professions"(4). I would agree. The profession of volunteer firefighting is so ingrained in the fabric of America that you can find a volunteer fire station within a short drive from anywhere in our country.
Pound's second factor, learning, is also a key factor in the status of volunteer firefighting as a profession. Volunteer firefighters across the nation are often held to the same standard as their paid brethren, while maintaining a full-time job and families. The level of dedication to carve out large blocks of time to devote to the pure pursuit of learning with no end benefit toward a person's bottom dollar is tremendous. Many volunteer firefighters treat the profession of volunteer firefighting with as much reverence as they do their vocations.
Pound's third and final factor is "spirit of public service". Because volunteer firefighters often do not undertake such activities for personal gain, the volunteer firefighter practices his craft in the spirit of public service, alone. Oftentimes there is no consideration, or other such compensation. While state legislatures, such as Alabama, work hard to try and create incentives for people to join volunteer fire departments, the personal cost oftentimes outweighs any value of such incentives.
Volunteer firefighting clearly meets the criteria for the true meaning of a profession. Because of this, it cannot follow that volunteer firefighters are not professionals, simply because they do not receive compensation. In fact, receiving compensation is one of the least important considerations to be used when one is to judge when a pursuit is a profession or not. Because of this, volunteer firefighters across the country should be proud to announce that they are professional volunteer firefighters, and such departments professional volunteer fire departments.
(1) Pound, What is a Profession? The Rise of the Legal Profession in Antiquity (1944) 19 Notre Dame L.Rev. 203, 204.
(2) Id. at 205.
(3) Firedex.com. George Washington’s Impact on Fire Fighting. https://www.firedex.com/blog/2014/02/19/george-washingtons- impact-fire-fighting (Feb. 19, 2014)., History.com. Roster From Ben Franklin’s Fire Department Found. https://www.history.com/news/roster-from-ben-franklins-fire-department-found. (May 23, 2012).
(4) See Supra, at 206.