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The Role of Volunteers in the United States Fire Service


When an emergency strikes, firefighters and EMS providers respond. But what most people don’t realize is that a majority of these responders are volunteers.

It could be a home fire. Perhaps it is a vehicle crash or a medical emergency. Maybe it is a natural disaster like a flood or a hurricane. Or a truck overturned on a highway carrying hazardous materials. Whatever the call that comes through to 911, firefighters and emergency medical (EMS) providers are there to answer it and to do what they can to protect those in their community.

It may come as a surprise to many of those community members that the ones responding to the emergency are often volunteers. In fact, about 82% of the nation’s fire departments are staffed either entirely or mostly with volunteers. These volunteers are the first line of defense for emergencies of all kinds.

Rural, small-town, and suburban communities are most likely to have volunteers answering the call. Many of these communities are unable to support the costs of switching to a paid fire service staffing model, which nationally would cost an additional $46.9 billion per year. Instead, they rely on a tradition as old as the nation itself — neighbors helping neighbors in their time of need.

The power of volunteers

It isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Volunteer firefighters and emergency medical providers are highly trained and departments have to meet rigorous standards in order to provide the services they do in their communities. The only difference between volunteer responders and their paid counterparts is that they are donating their time and talents to undertake this training and perform these services.

There are many reasons why people volunteer as a firefighter or EMS provider. Some are looking for a way to make a difference in their community, while others want to learn skills that can help them in their everyday lives as well as in their careers.

“It’s really unlike any other volunteer opportunity you can do,” said Steve Hirsch, chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and a volunteer firefighter in rural Kansas. “The sense of purpose and pride you get in giving back to your community in this way is incredible. There is also the camaraderie of being part of an amazing team that really feels more like a family. For many of us, once you are drawn into the volunteer fire service, you can’t imagine not being part of it.”

For those who want to give back but don’t have the time or inclination to be an emergency responder, fire departments also need non-operational volunteers. This can include fire prevention education, fundraising, public relations, administration, station and equipment maintenance, and much more.

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