courageWhat does it really cost to be a Fire Fighter? I wrote an earlier post on fund-raising and donations to help out your local volunteers. That is a monetary cost. But what about the physical and mental cost? Thousands of hours each year are spent on training alone and then add in actual calls. Some of these volunteers are gone for hours each week, away from their families, jobs and other things while serving their communities. Then there is the ultimate cost. What about, God forbid, they are killed in the line of duty? Line Of Duty Deaths (LODD) occur every year in the fire service and are a devastating loss to the department, but what about to the fire fighter’s family? Was this person the bread-winner? Then you have kids losing a parent.

west texasVolunteer Fire Departments are a staple in many towns and the only way to have adequate fire protection. Most little Boroughs, towns and villages can’t afford a paid or career department so the Volunteer Fire Department is their way to go. Okay, I can hear you now, “Is there a point to any of this?” Yes, actually there is. I am talking about the fertilizer plant explosion earlier this week in West Texas. The West Texas Volunteer Fire Department was the 1st due department on scene. They were engulfed in an explosion of 25 tons of Sodium Nitrate. They know of at least 5 Fire Fighters killed in the conflagration, not to mention Police and EMS Personnel also lost. There are still others unaccounted for.

TX-West-fire-engine-2Let’s put this in perspective. Timothy McVey only used 1 Ton of Sodium Nitrate when he detonated his bomb in Oklahoma. There were reports that homes almost 3 blocks away were decimated in the blast. West Texas VFD confirmed that 5 of their members have died and 11 more are hospitalized. For a department that only has 29 volunteers on its roster they have lost 55% of their department. The life lost is the ultimate cost, but what about equipment too? It was reported that the West Texas VFD was the typical small town department. They don’t have endless rivers of money pouring into their department so it is another hit to them.

Every Department in the United States is covered under their communities’ workman’s compensaation insurance and there is a death benefit paid, but then still others have supplemental insurance through other companies like VFIS. (Volunteer Fireman’s Insurance Service). This supplemental insurance is not free but it helps the family with the final expenses and hopefully provides a little cushion to help the family get back on their feet, especially if the fire fighter killed was the bread-winner. In this day and age of a tanking economy, a tragic event like this hits a family especially hard because like I said earlier, there is the emotional devastation but also a financial loss.

Okay, that was the somber, worst-case-scenario of being a volunteer. What about the emotional toll? Let’s just start with long hours. Many times I have found myself standing for hours in the rain or beating sun or freezing weather at a vehicle accident or other emergency. After a while it can have an effect on you. Hours spent on the fire ground after a bad fire are tough as well. First responders are forced to deal with raw emotions at the scene of a call and have to deal with them in a professional manner. Families are experiencing horrible emotions during an emergency and then add in the death of a loved one and you could have an explosive situation and volunteers are forced to handle them, often with no training at all. Imagine being on the nozzle in a burning house and finding a victim, perhaps deceased, burnt or even worse; a child. All these things affect first responders. It can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. We have heard a lot about PTSD since the war in Iraq and Afghanistan but first responders deal with it as well. Does PTSD have tragic results? You bet it does.

sad 1Some seasoned veterans of the volunteer fire and EMS service say they have seen too much to ever be affected by something horrific. I disagree. You can have 20 minutes or 20 years in and still be affected. You never know what it is that finally takes someone over the edge. I myself spent 15 years as an EMT and Paramedic and 4 years as a Deputy Coroner. I am in my 22nd year as a Volunteer Firefighter and can say in all that time I have seen many things that affected me. My wife spent even more time as a Paramedic and Nurse and she was able to help me through the bad stuff. Having someone to talk to about it helped me. My wife would ask me questions about what happened on the call and we would discuss it. I know the she helped me through and to where I am today.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was. Having someone to talk to who has been there is an even bigger bonus and I had that. Some are not that lucky. They end up keeping it all bottled up inside until it explodes or they hide in a bottle and try to drink their way to back to sanity. It ends up backfiring and bad things happen. Some first responders end up committing suicide. Others have committed murder or worse all because of something horrible they saw. Dealing with emotional issues after traumatic calls is a serious issue. Paid departments could conceivably have a person trained to deal with the issues in the aftermath. I don’t know of any Volunteer Departments that have that luxury. A lot of Volunteer personnel are forced to deal with their feelings on their own or pay for a counselor out of their own pocket. To that end, the feelings lie unresolved until they boil over and there horrific results.

While it might seem that I believe that being a Volunteer is more difficult than being paid, I don’t. I do however believe that it has its own set of unique challenges. Training is a big one though. While most career Fire Fighters and Paramedics receive their training for free, many Volunteers are forced to pay for their own training or just not have it. With things changing the way they are, even Volunteer departments are being forced to have the same training as paid departments. This is an ever-increasing problem. Many volunteer departments just simply lack the properly trained members or the money to get them trained.

I guess it mainly boils down to money. Some Volunteer Departments are forced operate antiquated or sub-par equipment or even worse just do without. Their membership base is just too economically strapped to help out much and in turn results in low Fund Drive Returns and poor showings for Fund Raisers. Has this resulted in Departments closing their doors? Yes it has. In just my 22 years as a Volunteer Fire Fighter I have seen several departments close their doors due to no money. Other departments have closed because of low membership numbers. You can’t operate 5 pieces of apparatus when you don’t have enough active members to even fully crew 1.

The next time you see a volunteer firefighter or EMT, take a second to thank them for what they do. Also think about what the real cost is to be a volunteer.  Some people think they are in it to get to run a blue light and speed to calls. Really? And they call ME crazy.

Rest In Peace to those lost.

Rest In Peace to those lost.