Bill Kehoe watched as flames jetted through the roof of the Alexandria apartment. A woman stood momentarily on the ledge of a second-story window before jumping safely to the ground.
Normally, Kehoe, a veteran firefighter, would have helped at the fire that caused $50,000 damage to the small apartment complex on Wythe Street. But under a new city regulation, Kehoe, like other volunteer firefighters in Alexandria, could only stand on the sidelines.
"Some of the paid men asked me to come and help, but I knew I couldn't," Kehoe said. "At a fire like that they can always use extra hands . . . the least I could have done was to lay or hold some hose and help put up ladders." l
The new regulations, approved in january, set strict physical and training standards that effectively bar volunteers from helping to fight city fires. Volunteers contend the new rules cap a four-year effort to eliminate the 200-year-old volunteer battalion, which has nearly 200 members. The paid force consists of 102 firefighters.
City and fire department officials say the standards, among the toughest in the Washington area, are the only solution to an increasingly troublesome problem: Some volunteers simply are not trained to fight fires.
"I feel sorry for them (the volunteers)," says Fire Chief Charles Rule. "They're a bunch of good old boys who are prisoners of the past. They refuse to accept that this is U.S.A 1981 and they're fighting this thing (new regulations)."
To back up the new regulations, Rule has issued a memorandum reminding all fire and city officials that volunteers interfering at a fire scene are are violating the law and should be reported to the police. Police say they have received no such reports since the memorandum was issued.
The new regulations require most volunteers to undergo 156 hours of training -- paid firefighters train for 400 hours -- and meet the same physical tests, such as height, weight, physical strength, as paid firefighters.
Volunteers insist that the amount of training is unreasonable, and are particularly irritated that volunteers in Arlington and Fairfax can fight Alexandria fires, even though they receive only a fraction of the training required in Alexandria. The three jurisdictions, through a mutual aid agreement, frequently asist each other in fighting fires.
"We have no jurisdiction over those areas," says Chief Rule. "If they (the volunteers) want to go to Arlington or Fairfax, that 's fine with me. They can go."
In the 2 1/2 months since the regulations were issued, relations between volunteer and paid firefighters have deteriorated, according to firefighters on both sides.
Chief Rule contends that some volunteers have interfered in the department's efforts at fire scenes. Volunteers, in turn, say paid firefighters are writing insulting poems and tacking up the rhymes on meeting room chalkboards. They say that cartoons, with the names of volunteers on gravestones, also have graced chalkboards. Paid firefighters readily admit that some of their colleagues wrote the poems and drew the cartoons.
"We were here long before they (city officials) were and we'll be here long after they're gone," says Tom Johnson, a 23-year-old volunteer, whose father and uncle also were volunteers. Johnson, who has been with the volunteer battalion four years, said last year he made 79 fire runs and clocked more than 500 hours.
"All I really want to do is help, I want to ride again . . . . Here we are giving free time to the city and we're getting crapped on."
Last year, volunteers say they logged 5,340 hours and answered more than 700 alarms.Fire officials concede the amount of time logged by volunteers may appear to be significant, but they insist that few volunteers actually help at a fire scene.
"The public has a really big misconception about what volunteer firemen usually do. At a big fire maybe four or five volunteers will show up and then only one or two will be working. The others are on the sidelines taking pictures," said Michael Conners, head of the city's firefighters union and a 12-year veteran of the force.
"I think i speak for the rank and file when I say most of us support Chief Rule's decision," Conners added, "either train them or get rid of them."
Volunteers readily admit they can only count 37 batttalion members as active firefighters, and say the major of the volunteers are in the battalion for the camaraderie and the prestige of belonging to the historic unit. But, they add, the 37 men who are active and want to help are as qualified as paid firefighters.
"I have gone into burning buildings, walked on crumbling roofs and am a qualified CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation). I have two letters of commendation. Is it so hard to believe that all we really want to do is help but can't afford to take a month off from work to be trained?"
But paid firefighters contend that if volunteers can't take that time, they shouldn't be on the force.
"Firefighting is perhaps the most hazardous profession in the country . . . . We confront enough hazards each time we enter a building without having to wonder whether the fellow behind you is there for the first time, whether he knows what he's doing, or whether he might leave you," says union president Conners.
"We train daily and these people are constantly untrained. Untrained and unskilled, the volunteer firemen are just another hazard for us.
"A burning house is no place to learn."