The volunteer firefighter is such a familiar staple of American life that most people don't question the situation. Yes, these people are brave for battling fires, but their true heroism stands out when you find out just what it takes to hold the whole organization together for the good of the community.
Firefighters perform essential functions - you would think that their primary function of keeping things from burning would be enough to warrant ample funding, but you would be wrong. Most U.S. firefighters are, in fact, volunteers - about 77%, as of 2012.
While we know it takes an incredibly brave and selfless person to donate their time to saving life and property, thinking about it for more than a minute may make you wonder how it works, exactly. Do they work in shifts? Do they have day jobs? How do they get to the fire? Do they really not get paid?
When you think of the term "volunteer", you immediately think "working for free" - and many volunteer firefighters do just that. But the term can also be applied to others who work on-call and hold down other employment. While they don't work shifts per se, they do get paid for their time spent responding to an emergency.
It's not just firefighters, either. In some areas, volunteer fire department may be the only emergency service for miles around, so they also have a hazardous material crew, emergency medical technicians and other first responders. In areas where personnel is scarce, local police force may be trained in these areas and act as the fire department when needed.
So, They Do Get Paid?
Some of them do - the mentioned on-call firefighters may be paid a normal rate for the time spent on a call, but they don't get paid for downtime the way career firefighters who work shifts would.
As per U.S. Department of Labor rules, volunteer firefighters may be paid up to 20% of what career firefighters make for the same amount of time, but they receive healthcare and property tax break benefits. Firefighters who receive less than full wages but more than 20% are classified as "part-volunteer, part-on-call".
Interestingly, DOL laws state that volunteer firefighters cannot be paid hourly. It makes sense - you want them to put your fire out ASAP, not dilly-dally about trying to run up the clock. They are usually paid per shift, per-call, or whatever arrangement the individual department has worked out, that is not tied to productivity.
Who Gets the Truck?
Every five-year-old knows that the most fun you can have is riding in a fire truck. Unfortunately for the five years old, volunteer firefighters don't get to drive the truck around to their day jobs. The truck stays at the station, and when a call comes in, everyone meets up there and rides in the truck together.
This brings up an interesting point - the response time is usually longer for volunteer departments because the firefighters have to come from all over to get to the station - what if they have to come from way across town? Most departments give the volunteers "courtesy lights" that they can plop on top of their regular vehicle.
In some places, it's a red light complete with siren, and qualifies as an emergency light. It should be treated as a fire truck. In other places, volunteers are given blue and green lights with no siren - these are meant to "request" the right of way, but don't allow the driver to run red lights or anything. But still - if you see one, get out of the way.
Who Pays For This?
Volunteer fire departments are generally supported by local taxes, but corporate and private donors pick up the slack. There are also charities that collect donations for the station - ever heard of the Fireman's Ball? Ever seen a firefighter on the corner collecting money in a boot? These are all necessary, sadly.
Many areas have limited tax revenue, and the departments have to pay for equipment, equipment maintenance, training, the firehouse, insurance, worker's compensation (it is, after all, a high-risk field), and pensions. All that takes a lot of cash.
So next time you see a firefighter holding a boot, drop in a check. You never know when your life or your home may one day depend on these people being present, equipped, and well-trained.