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Volunteer Firefighter

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When volunteer firefighter Gail Schmidt fought a wild land fire in 2010, her battle had a personal element to it. The fire was approaching her property and that of her neighbors in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Schmidt, an assistant chief, worked to clear the ground of pine needles and vegetation. She cut down trees with a chainsaw so they wouldn't burn and spread the fire. She wet the grass around the houses, and cleared away items from homes to protect them from the fire. Together with her team of firefighters, she saved her neighborhood.

Volunteers like Schmidt make up 69 percent of America's firefighters. There are 27,000 fire departments in the country -- 788,250 are volunteers.

In small towns and rural areas, it's mainly volunteer firefighters who respond to fires, car accidents, natural disasters and medical emergencies. Many volunteers have other paying jobs, and volunteer around their work hours.

Women are a minority in the fire service, but their numbers are growing. "I am seeing more and more women get into it, and that's great" says Schmidt. There are three female firefighters at her fire department.

Volunteer hours vary from department to department. However, by and large, volunteering in the fire service is one of the most demanding volunteer activities there is. That's according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Time commitments include responding to calls, training, fundraising, vehicle and station maintenance, and administrative duties.

And firefighting is a risky job -- whether you're paid for it or not. Firefighters are often first on the scene, when all the dangers are not yet known. They're exposed to hazards, from heat and smoke to unstable buildings and car wrecks.

In 2006, 106 U.S. firefighters died in the line of duty -- 77 were volunteers. The leading cause of death was stress or overexertion.

However, despite the demands and dangers, volunteer firefighting can be incredibly rewarding. The rewards are the saves, says Chad Sartison. He's a volunteer firefighter of five years.

"Not a lot of people get to go through life and say they've saved a life," he says. "It's a true privilege."

Responding to a call at 1:30 a.m., Chad Sartison was expecting a false alarm. But when he arrived on the scene and opened the door to the house, smoke started billowing out. He called for back-up.

Two Great Danes were trapped in the house. The homeowner was away, and had left a large pot on the stove on high. The pot was flaming over and melting. The ceiling was about to catch fire.

"It was probably about two minutes from becoming a serious working fire," says Sartison. He removed the pot from the house. Then he and a fellow firefighter worked to get the dogs out, and saved them both.

When the homeowner returned, she ran over to Sartison and hugged him. "She was so worried about her dogs," he says.

Sartison volunteers with a rural fire department. As a financial planner working for himself, he can respond to calls day and night.

"For me, it just doesn't feel like volunteering," he says. "I feel that I get so much back from the fire service.... It's also the excitement and being there for people."

Robbie Grisdale's father was a firefighter, his uncle a fire chief. Two of his cousins are firefighters, two others paramedics. So when it came time for Grisdale to pick a career, emergency services seemed a natural choice.

A full-time paramedic, Grisdale also volunteers with the fire department in Cherryville, North Carolina. He's been volunteering for over 20 years.

"I love everything about it," he says. "It's adventurous. You meet a lot of interesting people."

Besides house fires, industrial fires and car accidents, he often responds to medical emergencies as a volunteer.

Recently, he helped save an elderly woman who had suffered a heart attack in her home and had fallen on the floor. When he arrived on the scene, the house was locked up tight, so he used his firefighting tools to break down the front door. She was then rushed to the hospital.

"It's very demanding," says Grisdale of the job. "It's rough on your body. And it can be stressful at times. It's rewarding all in the same thing. You know, this is a job that you're volunteering for, but you do more work than most people do in eight hours."

Barbara Nelson may be small, but she's mighty. At just over five feet tall, she is not your stereotypical strapping firefighter. "It's not always brute force," she says. "Sometimes it's technique. I have raised the eyebrows of a lot of guys down there for what I can do."

A homemaker with six kids, Nelson started volunteering seven years ago. She had always wanted to be an emergency medical technician (EMT). She found out that the local fire department would pay for her EMT training if she joined the fire department as a volunteer.

"Once I had gone through the firefighting academy, I realized you don't have to be six foot two and 250 pounds... and I just so enjoyed it."

Her fire department in Stayton, Oregon receives 800 to 900 calls per year. As a volunteer, Nelson responds when she can. "Because I stay at home, I can go on a lot more of the calls than most of the guys," she says.

"I just have a strong drive inside me to want to help people," she says. "It feels good to be part of the community and give back."

How to Get Involved

Most fire departments require firefighters to be at least 18 years of age. However, thousands of junior firefighting programs exist across the country.

Call 1-800-FIRE-LINE to find out about volunteer emergency service opportunities in your area. Or, contact your local volunteer fire department about volunteer firefighting opportunities.

Typically, fire departments supply volunteers with standard gear. However, volunteers may decide to purchase gear beyond the basics.

Many fire departments require volunteers to take their Firefighter 1 training in their first year or year-and-a-half with the department. The program includes 200 hours of training. Some volunteers will also take additional specialized training.


National Volunteer Fire Council


National Junior Firefighter Program
Get involved as a junior firefighter. Search for programs in your state. Scholarships and grants are also available
Provides resources for volunteer firefighters, including news and a message board

Fire Rescue 1
Offers the latest fire and rescue news from across North America, as well as job listings, safety and training information for firefighters

Fire Corps
Recruits community volunteers into fire and emergency medical service departments for non-emergency roles

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