Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

A Fraternity of Danger: Volunteer Fire Companies and the Contradictions of Modernization

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

A Fraternity of Danger: Volunteer Fire Companies and the Contradictions of Modernization

Article excerpt



Volunteer Fire Departments (VFDs) are a pervasive feature of life in rural areas of the United States. While incorporated cities have paid fire departments, John Lozier, citing Jacobs (1976), reported that 91 percent of the 2.2 million fire fighters in the United States are volunteers, and 87 percent of the departments are volunteer organizations (1976, 345). Perkins' more recent figures are lower - "over a million" volunteers - but indicate that VFDs remain the dominant force in fire protection (1990, 360). Their 25,000 organizations comprise 80 percent of all U.S. firefighters, and extend protection to three-fourths of the geographic area of the country (Perkins, 1990; 1989). This paper argues that VFDs comprise an organizational and moral resource important to rural community, but one which is being eroded by the processes of modernization.

Employing the example of VFDs in one county in rural New York state, I claim that in a fundamental sense, the VFD is a pillar of local community in rural regions (also, Perkins, 1987). VFDs protect life and property.(1) Additionally, they ritually enhance local identity, build moral systems based on locality, and empower residents to overcome natural adversity. They provide a key organizational support for community moral integration and territorial self-definition. VFDs exemplify the capacity of ordinary residents to plan and initiate action at the local level for the benefit of their communities. The object of such organization, fire protection, is territorially inclusive, existentially demanding, and symbolically dramatic. Voluntary fire service keeps alive what is absent from government provision of services through centralized bureaucratic structures: community as a system of locally initiated mutual aid.

The days when community economies were organized around local capital with significant, albeit paternalistic, links to the welfare of particular localities are long gone (Warner, 1947). The present acceleration toward global market integration and increasing dominance by multinational corporations is transforming localities in the first world, as in the third, into abstract planes of com-modified space and labor. What increasingly determines the patterns of corporate investment and disinvestment at points within economic space is comparative advantage, cheaper resources, labor, and transportation, not an obligation to provide inclusive community benefits (Peterson, 1992; Harrison and Bluestone, 1988; Wallerstein, 1980; Galeano, 1973; Frank, 1967; Myrdal, 1957). The emergent role of the state in the context of global competition is to act as counterpart to corporate actors, facilitating their profitability through building infrastructure, relieving their tax burdens, training their workers, and coping with the security problems of crime at home and rebellion abroad. This is not an agenda likely to coincide with the long-term interests of local communities (Barnet and Cavanaugh, 1994; Rich, 1994; Simpson, 1994; Bernstein, 1981; Stohr, 1981). If they are to serve their residents in this new political economy, localities will have to reconstruct themselves as more comprehensive and effective systems of moral obligation. This paper maintains that volunteer fire departments, a legacy of simpler days, provide a model for such integration. As a cultural resource, they should not be lost.

This study uses county-level census data between 1970 and 1990. It also relies on field data, including open-ended interviews, obtained between 1985 and 1995, with thirty members of five volunteer fire departments in Clinton County, N.Y. Additional data on members' jobs and family ties were obtained from officers in three departments that included 130 members. The departments represent a rural-to-urban typology, extending from the county's metropolitan center out to its agricultural periphery. From 1985 to 1990 the author was a member of a VFD in the study county, and acted for a time as department treasurer. …

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