When you ask someone why they joined a volunteer fire department, the common response is “to give back to the community.” It was my motivation when I walked into the Town of French Fire Hall thirty-six years ago. However that isn’t the primary reason people stay, if they do.
I was the fire chief in Side Lake for thirty years, and as any rural chief will attest the greatest challenge is to recruit and retain members. The commitment of time, energy, and emotional capital required to be a trained and effective firefighter or EMS first responder (or both) is demanding and daunting. Many recruits quickly discover that at least for them, it’s too much. There’s no shame in it – many simply can’t afford that particular obligation.
For those who do contribute twenty or thirty years of hard service, sometimes risking their health and safety, what’s the motivation? While community spirit certainly remains an influence, it tends to wear thin under the pressures. Fortunately there exist other compensations, not least the camaraderie of shared labor and struggle, and the opportunity for personal development. Frankly, there’s something in it for them – there must be, or like any human endeavor it will fail. A community has needs, but so do those who serve it.
As chief, one of my principal goals was to direct the creation and maintenance of an organization that people wanted to belong to and support because it was good for them. The fire hall and the incident scene should be places they desire to be. The same applies to any civic group. Active volunteers who are giving of themselves also need to be nurtured in turn. For some, perhaps, sacrifice is its own reward, but for most unpaid or nominally-paid volunteers there must be other incentives: self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, belonging, personal legacy, and sometimes even a plaque.
Yes, it’s worthy to be involved and to serve your community, but it’s also worthy (and needful) to be recognized and rewarded. To sustain a volunteer civic organization it’s essential to sustain its membership. For the fire department personnel the sustenance encompasses rigorous training, official recognition of participation and proficiency, quality tools and equipment, a positive and welcoming social network, and meaningful achievement with tangible benefits to both individuals and the community. Sometimes there is also excitement and adventure. All of that, in different forms, can apply to any association of human beings with a common goal. For example, meeting a political or charitable goal can be as exciting as saving a house.
I believe each citizen has a duty to make their community a better place in whatever way – large or small — they are able. A fine reason to do so is that discharging such duty also makes you a more satisfied person. It may be better to give than to receive, but both are necessary.
Peter Leschak is a firefighter and author of several books, including “Hellroaring: The Life and Times of a Fire Bum.” He lives in Side Lake.