No interest and no time, I remember thinking when the chief and assistant chief of my then-new local volunteer fire department stopped by our housewarming party and mentioned that they were always looking for volunteers. Community involvement? I have a job and countless side projects that need attention, and now house chores. Plus, social stuff wipes me out. So no thanks, but I told them I’d think about it.
I thought about it for seven years, pretty much all the time.
Every time the siren went off I would hope whoever needed help was okay. Every time I saw the sign on the firehouse rearranged to congratulate someone or invite us to a pancake breakfast, I’d wonder who-all lived near me and what they were like. When firefighters helped clear my road after hurricane Irene, I wished I had been able to thank them in person.
Little by little, the feeling grew in me that I had to be involved. But it seemed dangerous — fire! Plus I figured the members all knew each other and I would stick out. Still, the idea of somehow volunteering worked its way into my list of goals for 2014.
Then on a snowy January day I waved to a truck and asked the driver to plow my driveway because my plow guy quit. The driver turned out to be the assistant chief of the fire department who came to my housewarming and responded to the sirens I heard and moved trees that the hurricane tore down, and now he was chief. When he finished plowing I said I had thought about joining the fire department, and I asked for an application.
The fire department is mostly meetings, checklists, and having to charge your complaining pager. My dad is an HR guy for the federal government, and it surprised him that I was interested in the fire department, because I’m pretty mellow. He said firefighters are often the kind of people who crave action. But he also said that some of those thrill-seeking folks are disappointed when they realize that emergency work is all about boring stuff, preparation and maintenance. Aha!
My plan was to help out however I could, just to see if it was for me. So I attended the meetings on Mondays even though I wasn’t a member. Three Mondays each month, for business affairs, preventative maintenance, and drills. The other Monday is for officers only.
After a few weeks the department voted me in and gave me a pager and a bag of gear. The first few times my pager went off, Eileen and I were wrangling the kids to sleep. So I got out of that!
Mostly the calls are not fire-related. Flooded basements that we pump out, traffic that we direct so a neighboring fire department doesn’t have to, and downed trees that need to be cut up and moved off the road. The one fire we extinguished since I joined was because some guy was enjoying a fire in his yard during a burn ban.
It’s really all about safety. One of our drill nights was a mandatory OSHA training course. Another was making sure everybody knew how to pump water at the scene of an emergency. Preventative maintenance (PM) nights are about making sure every piece of equipment is in good working condition, and getting to know where it all is.
It’s way more dangerous to ignore all of that potential safety knowledge and emergency preparedness than it is to be a firefighter. Who’s going to show up when you or a neighbor needs help? Competent, careful, willing people are in limited supply. We need you. You need you.
I haven’t even been trained about fire yet, but emergencies happen and I spent seven years feeling guilty in my slippers while people I didn’t know – some of the most friendly, helpful, selfless, thoughtful people I now know – practiced, prepared, and charged their complaining pagers to make sure that the elderly and weak and young and busy and careless and lazy among us would be okay.
I never wanted to be a firefighter, but now I do.
To finish up, three things I love about the fire department.
I love learning from other people. The old guys with their amazing stories and years of wisdom, as well as the young folks who are quick to demonstrate how the gear and trucks work.
I love that I already found a design problem to try and solve. When we direct traffic away from an accident and into the twisted, hilly backroads nearby, people get really frustrated. Not everybody has a GPS or uses their phone for directions. So I’m making a map to hand out, and thinking about what to say to help calm drivers’ nerves when they roll down the window.
I love being part of the community where I live. As a remote worker with introverted-bordering-on-hermitic tendencies, I didn’t do much in my neighborhood besides drive through it. Now it feels like I belong here.
And hey, I designed a t-shirt. With help from the folks at Cotton Bureau, these are printed in the USA on the most comfortable shirts around, from American Apparel. Buy one for yourself or someone you know who’s proud to be part of their local fire department. My portion of any profits will go to St. Remy Volunteer Fire Dept.
Shirts were available for a limited time, and may again be available in the future if enough people are interested.