9 things no one will tell you about being a volunteer firefighter

It’s safe to say that no one plans on forgetting about dinner on the stovetop or crashing his car on the highway. On our very worst days, it’s a relief to know that firefighters have been trained to help.Firemen have been helping Americans since 1678, but most people don’t know much more about them than what they’ve seen in the (all-too-often incorrect) movies.Here is a bit of insight into what the job is really like:
  • 1. Most firefighters have other jobs, too. Volunteering as a firefighter is something you’ll take pride in for the rest of your life — but something has to pay the bills, too. Being a volunteer firefighter doesn’t stop you from pursuing other careers. In fact, the two can work together. “Sometimes volunteering can parallel with your other lifework,” said Tony Kovacic, chief of the Hempfield Township Fire Department. “Teachers and coaches sign up because they can be good role models to kids and talk to them about safety. Inspectors and engineers have a lot of career knowledge that helps them make quick calculations. You may be surprised how many careers are relevant.”  
  • 2. It’s nearly impossible to see anything at all inside a burning building. In the movies, bright flames flicker about, clearly illuminating entire rooms and the people trapped inside. In real life, firefighters say there’s not a whole lot to look at. Thick smoke creates a zero-visibility situation in a matter of minutes, and the firefighters have to navigate by touch to find different rooms. “Once you’re in the building and you feel that heat on you, and you can’t see anything, you have to use senses other than sight,” said Madisyn Kush, Fort Allen, Pennsylvania Volunteer Active Senior Firefighter. “You really have to trust everyone else you’re with and trust in your training.”
  • 3. Most calls aren’t for fires. Fire emergencies make up a small fraction of the calls fire departments respond to. “When that call comes in, you could have a vehicle accident on the highway that has littered debris you need to clear, or you could have hazardous materials to handle — you never know what that call is going to bring,” Kovacic said.
  • 4. What you learn in high school matters. Firefighters use basic knowledge that you probably already learned in high school. “It’s funny how young people don’t think there is much application in the real world for what they are learning in school, but if you go into the fire department, you use a lot of it,” Kovacic said. “Whether it’s the math for how to calculate friction to get the proper power to the fire hose, or chemistry to determine where hazardous chemicals might be detected, if you weren’t paying attention in high school, you’ll have to relearn all of that.”
  • 5. Fire departments aren’t all men. It’s not just big, strong men who fight fires. In fact, it hasn’t been since 1818 when Molly Williams became the first known female firefighter in the United States. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, young or old, muscular or not, they’ll take you and show you how,” said Kush. “It’s a family and we encourage every single person who walks through that door.” More than half of women who take the physical fitness test each year pass. It’s a physically demanding job, but equipment is lighter than it once was, making the job that much better for both men and women. “In the moment, when all of that adrenaline is rushing, you don’t really feel the weight on you anyway,” said Kush. Fire departments today aren’t just encouraging women to join; they’re actively trying to recruit them. Nationwide, only 7 percent of firefighters are female, and it’s still possible to be the first female firefighter in many departments. “It’s a male-dominated field, but it feels great to earn that respect and show it’s not just something that a man can do.”
  • 6. Not everyone has to fight fires. You can still be a major contributor to the fire service without ever setting foot inside of a burning building. Fire departments need people to work the office, educate the public and more. If you’re not inclined to climb a ladder or stand face to face with a structure on fire, the fire station still wants you. “It’s a business, and we need people to run the administrative side of things just as much as we need people to drag a hose to the door,” Kovacic said.
  • 7. Firemen really do still rescue cats from trees. But it doesn’t end there. They rescue all sorts of animals in need: livestock stuck in a lake, dogs that fell down wells, even raccoons stuck in manholes. And that’s not including the number of people who get themselves stuck unusual places! You name it, it’s happened. If there is one thing for sure, there is no ordinary day on the job.
  • 8. Coworkers become one big family. With the long hours and high-pressure situations, it doesn’t take long for fire department folks to form tight bonds. When you become part of the fire department, those people become an extension of your family. “If someone is getting married or having a kid — typically when something is going on with the life of a firefighter — the rest of the station gets involved,” Kovacic said. “Most of my best and lifelong friends are firefighters.”
  • 9. The sense of pride is more than many will ever experience. The sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when you’re able to save a life is overwhelming. You prepare for weeks and months for your first incident, and then it comes. You know you’re a valuable part of the community, you feel you have a purpose, and you’re hooked for life.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Kush said, “It is definitely a lot of hard work, but it’s rewarding and no matter who you are, that feeling you get from helping people makes all that hard work worth it.”