As many of you are already aware, I work full time for an organization that is technically a combination fire organization. But, the heart and soul of the organization is the volunteer firefighters. From the rank of Battalion Chief on down, these dedicated men and women answer the calls for service each day and are as professional as any other firefighter in this line of work.
Lately, I am beginning to ask the question, “What does it mean to be a Volunteer Firefighter”? It seems that what it meant in the 1980’s when I began calling myself a firefighter and today are different. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But this question began making me ask this question myself and I thought I would take a little time to answer the question with a few thoughts.
When I began my career in the fire service back in the mid 80’s, I knew what it meant to me. I had been bitten by the firefighter bug. I couldn’t wait for the next training class, or until the pager went off. I would hang around the fire station for hours cleaning trucks, working on bunker drills, practicing search techniques, whatever I could just waiting for the next call. When the tones did go off, It didn’t matter what time of the day or night, Hot or Cold, Snow, Sleet, Rain, Christmas morning, my birthday, sleepy, tired, sick, hungry….It didn’t matter, I was going.
Some would read this and probably think I am way more crazy than you thought! You are probably right. But, I wasn’t the only one like this. Back then it seemed EVERYONE was that way. You see, I wasn’t alone hanging out at the station waiting for something to happen. The whole department would routinely show up just just hang out. We would have impromptu BBQ’s, Super Bowl Parties, and yes, even would train on whatever the mood struck us to train on. We all just wanted to do whatever we decided to do at the fire station so that when the tones went off, we were quick out the door and quick to arrive to whatever the need was.
Some people like my dad would ask me all the time, “You know that people get paid to do what you do for free don’t you”? He was absolutely right but I didn’t care. I loved being a firefighter and still do today. Paid, volunteer, part time, paid on call, whatever you call it, I was a firefighter and I LOVE IT. I knew my stuff and I was good at it. More than anything I was in the business of helping people on their worst day ever. That is what it was all about.
So, what does it mean to you to be a volunteer firefighter? Here are some of my observations and opinions on the subject.
First of all, it means that you take pride in the service you provide. Retired Fire Chief Rick Lasky has said that being a firefighter is not a job, but it’s a calling. He is absolutely right! Many of us have dreamed about being a firefighter since we were small children. Riding on the fire truck, wearing the gear, and helping your neighbor in their greatest time of need. You must be dedicated which means that you answer every call for service not because you feel obligated to, not because you need to meet an organizational quota or requirement, but simply because you want to. Because you cannot imagine doing anything else.
Second, it means that nobody motivates you to be the best firefighter other than you. To be able to dress out on your PPE faster, advance that attack line better, throw ladders better, and doing every job or task in this business better than the last time you did it and constantly working to make it better still. We all know that there are regulations and standards that state what the expectations are for our performance as firefighters and those standards are very important! However, more than anything your ability to perform your job with the highest degree of confidence and safety so that you can make a difference is what counts the most. It’s all about the basics!
Third, it means that you do all of these things because they are important and the right thing to do. Being a firefighter is not about “what’s in it for me”! The gratification that we get by receiving an award at a banquet or a thank you from the public for a job well done is always an honor and is an indication of how we are doing. But what should drive everyone in this business is standing up for what’s right, doing the right thing, and helping people who need our help.
What does it mean to be a volunteer firefighter? It means answering the call. Not because of the pay or because of what it may do for you. But, because it is what you have been called to do and you want to do it more than anything. It means knowing your tasks so well that you do not even have to think about doing the tasks, they just happen because you know what needs to be done. It means knowing the basics because no matter how difficult or technical a call is, the basics will pull you through. It means doing it because you care. It means doing it because you love what you do so you do what you love.
A volunteer firefighter is no different then those who get paid to do this job. In fact, when you think about those who work in the paid fire services, they too are technically a “volunteer” because nobody held a gun to their head and told them they have to do that job. Every firefighter must remember that the NFPA standards do not differentiate between paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters in relation to who has to comply with what standards. Every firefighter is expected to do the job safely, quickly, and efficiently so that lives can be saved, property can be salvaged, and our communities are protected. It means that YOU are doing the very best job possible and doing so gives you the greatest feeling in the world. Pay or not.
Once you know the job and the responsibilities, you have to be dedicated to answer the calls whenever they come in. Day, Night, Winter, Summer, Christmas, Thanksgiving, always. Not because you have to, but because YOU WANT TO! Because you take pride in being a firefighter and you are dedicated to the service.
So I challenge each of you who read this. Ask yourself why I am a firefighter? It doesn’t matter paid or volunteer. Be honest with yourself. If you truly are honest about your answer, maybe you have the right answer. Maybe you have the drive, the pride to be the best because you want to be. If not, start looking for ways to find that motivation. Take a class, teach some new recruits, spend some time at the station making something better. If you still can’t find that motivation, find another occupation, hobby, or whatever you call it. The fire service and your community doesn’t need people like you. Nothing personal, just business.
If you are not currently a firefighter, does doing the things that I am talking about here make sense to you? Do the things I describe here excite you and make you think about becoming a firefighter? If so, your community needs you. Your neighbors need you. Firefighters in the volunteer fire forces are struggling to answer calls and keep the community protected. Is there sacrifice in being a firefighter? Absolutely. There will be much time away from family and friends as you learn this craft, and become proficient at your tasks. You will miss baseball games, birthday parties, Christmas morning. Not every one… but certainly some of them. However, there is no greater reward than helping your neighbor and having the honor of them giving you a simple “thank you”. No amount of money can buy how that feels. If you want to learn more, stop by your local fire house and find out how you can become one of us. It will be the best decision of your life.
Many times, I have heard the comment “They’re just a bunch of volunteers” as if that is some excuse for substandard performance. NO WAY! Volunteers do things because they want to. Not because they have to. Therefore, be a volunteer. a firefighter! Take pride in what you do. Be the best you can be everyday.