· firefighting thoughts

What I Wish You Knew About Volunteer Firefighters

Sunday morning our department was paged out to support a life flight helicopter landing at a local hospital. It’s a pretty routine thing. We get the page, we respond to the station and retrieve an engine, and lastly we secure the landing pad and provide safety for the incoming aircraft. On this particular morning the call went out around 0600 and we were there by 0608. Afterward around 0730 I decided to stop in the gas station to grab a soda before going home. Inside the attendant asked about my radio and when I told her I was a volunteer she said:

Oh. So if the real guys can’t make it then they call you guys?


My first instinct was to be extremely offended. I have over 5 years of experience and have obtained nationally recognized certifications in both firefighting and medical areas. My deputy chief who was with me on the call that morning has over 30 years both in the Army as well as civillian fire service and has a list of certifications that I’ve given up trying to remember. I wanted to say 100 things but instead I explained that the whole local area was volunteer, thanked her for the soda, and then left. Later that day it was still bothering me and I finally realized why her comment stuck with me. She wasn’t being malicious, petty, or mean. She simply didn’t know what a “volunteer” is or what that term represents. So now you get to read this post explaining all the things I wish people knew about volunteers. Consider this an Ask Me Anything (on topic) and add questions in the comment sections. I’ll update this post with whatever answers I have.

There are far more volunteers than you think

It’s true. According to FEMA only 4% of fire departments are something other than your typical local fire department. In that 4% are things like privately contracted companies, Federal and State agencies, military fire departments, etc. That leaves 96% of fire departments for us to consider.

So nationwide you have volunteers as the primary workforce in 83.5% of all fire departments. To provide further context to that “mostly volunteer” number my local county (Lowndes County, GA) has only one full-time career fire station in the entire county. That station staffs only 2 or 3 full time firefighters per shift. The remaining 9 districts (about 15 fire stations) are completely volunteer.

There is an incredibly strong chance that unless you live in a major city or town your fire department is volunteer as well.

Volunteers are held to the same certification levels as career firefighters

The National Fire Protection Association provides the national standard for what it means to be a firefighter. From a certification perspective I hold the same certification from the same organization that a career firefighter would have. I can apply for and immediately be hired by a career fire departmet with my existing certifications. Does that mean the FDNY (Fire Department of New York) would hire me? Absolutely not. The ongoing training I receive and the experience I have is very targetted to my community and the risks we face here. New York has large buidings, dense populations, and lots of rescue. I’m willing to bet I could not keep up climbing stairs or attacking a high rise fire in New York. On the opposite side of that coin the firefighters in New York would be less prepared to handle a large wildfire in California or a mobile home fire like my department has faced many times. I consider the career guys in FDNY to be equivalent to the Marines or the SEALS. They are the elite of the field but ultimately we are all still firefighters.

Volunteers don’t have shifts (unless they do)

In my department we don’t have “shifts”. If it’s 3PM and there is an emergency, my pager goes off, and I am able to respond then I go. If I’m busy with work/family/whatever then I don’t. It’s that simple and given a roster of 20 firefighters on a district someone almost always answers the call. In contrast a friend of mine is a volunteer in Texas and on his department they do have shifts. Each department and community do what is best for them.

YOU can be a volunteer (and we need you)

Volunteer departments provide a vital service to their community at a low cost to the tax payer. Your local government can provide nice shiny equipment but that equipment is useless without someone to operate it. That someone can absolutely be you. While volunteers are required to hold the same certifications as their career counterparts that doesn’t mean you have to already be a firefighter. Nearly every volunteer fire department has a training program to get you up to the proper levels of certification. Maybe you are afraid of running into a burning building and that’s OK. Your local fire department still needs people to drive the trucks, help carry equipment, provide medical aid to victims, and even set up shady places with bottled cold water for the firefighters to recuperate after being in a fire. The point is your local volunteer department needs people and there is always some role you can fill.

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