Jane Perkins

Many residents who stop by their local fire stations are surprised to discover how many different people serve as volunteer firefighters. You may be just as surprised to learn who the volunteer firefighters are in your community. The departments that represent the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League have volunteers who are state senators and owners of large manufacturing companies, commercial airline pilots and boat captains, mechanics and engineers, active-duty and reserve members of the armed forces, dentists and doctors, bankers and teachers, sheriffs, police officers and park rangers. They are also parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Most importantly, they are your neighbors who have a passion for helping others. If you have a desire to serve your community, you will find that your local volunteer fire department will provide you with one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), volunteers make up more than 70 percent of the firefighters in the United States. There are more than 1.1 million firefighters across the country, and nearly 815,000 of them are volunteers. The NVFC reports that almost 20,000 of the nearly 30,000 fire departments in the country are completely staffed by volunteers, with an additional 5,000 departments that are predominantly volunteer organizations. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the number of volunteers in the United States has decreased 15 percent since 1984, yet the call volume has increased by nearly 300 percent, leaving volunteer fire departments in need of additional volunteers.

Local fire department and firefighter data aligns with the national statistics. The majority of fire departments within Washington County in Rhode Island and New London County in Connecticut are primarily operated by volunteer firefighters, and they are always searching for new volunteers. Although volunteer firefighters receive little to no monetary compensation for their efforts, the chance to aid and serve the community is an extremely fulfilling experience.

Volunteers invest a large amount of time serving their communities, often during inconvenient hours. Time commitments include operational responses (often at a moment’s notice), training, vehicle and station maintenance, and various administrative duties. As a professional volunteer firefighter, you will need to continue to commit the time and the effort that it takes to attend training on a regular basis and respond to emergency calls. You simply cannot expect to walk into a volunteer firehouse and be ready to do the job.

Becoming a volunteer firefighter requires many hours of initial training and a strong, ongoing dedication. The NVFC recommends all volunteer fire department personnel attain a level of training that meets or exceeds the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard 1001: Firefighter Professional Qualifications. This same standard is commonly used to train paid firefighters. Since most volunteer fire departments ask you to devote a certain amount of time and service, you need to make sure you have the time in your schedule and the flexibility to make it work.

Volunteer firefighters need to be prepared for emergency situations that may be both mentally challenging and physically engaging. In addition to extinguishing and administering first aid, emergency duties also include rescuing victims from cars or buildings, carrying fire hoses up stairs or ladders, and breaking down doors. Volunteer firefighters also perform non-emergency tasks on a daily basis. Those duties include planning and implementing fire prevention activities and community risk reduction programs. They are also responsible for various routine tasks around the firehouse, such as maintaining the building facilities and emergency vehicles and giving firehouse tours. Remember, not everyone needs to fight the fires! There are many administrative and support roles that need to be filled to keep a volunteer fire department operating smoothly.

Once you determine that you have the time and the desire to make the commitment, contact your local fire department by calling their non-emergency phone number, e-mailing them through their website, or visiting the station and speaking to the volunteers. Although each fire department may have slightly different application and review processes, they all generally require the same steps. Once you make contact with a fire department and ensure your expectations are similar to theirs, you will need to complete an application, submit to a background check, meet with a screening committee, undergo a physical exam, and attend a meeting to meet the other firefighters.

The key to being a successful volunteer firefighter is to focus on your training. You may be referred to as a volunteer, but the citizens in your community will expect you to be professional, fully trained, highly skilled, and completely prepared to handle any emergency. If you still have dreams of fighting fires and protecting your community, consider becoming a volunteer firefighter. Your professional skills, background knowledge, and willingness to help, will make you a valued member of any department.

This column was written by Jane Perkins, Fire Safety Specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and Captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at askafirefighter@yahoo.com.

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