According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2020, over 65% of firefighters in the United States were volunteers. These firefighters are not motivated by financial gain but rather by a desire to serve and protect their communities. Their selfless dedication to this noble calling is truly inspiring.

In this blog, we will delve into the rich history of volunteer firefighting, examining its evolution over time. We will also discuss the numerous benefits that volunteer firefighters bring to their communities and the unique challenges they face. 

The History of Volunteer Firefighting

The history of volunteer firefighting can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin, who founded the Union Fire Company or sometimes called Franklin’s Bucket Brigade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1736. This was the first volunteer fire company of its kind in the United States, and it soon spread across the city and then all over the country.

Benjamin Franklin painting

In these early days, fires were a common and dangerous occurrence, and it was up to the members of the community to band together to protect their homes and businesses.

As a result, many towns and cities formed volunteer departments. The community members stepped up to serve as firefighters. This tradition has continued to the present day, with volunteer local fire departments still playing a vital role in many communities.

As cities grew bigger, the need for better ways to fight fires became more critical. In the 19th century, professional firefighting started to become more common. People were paid to fight fires, and there were more organized and efficient ways to do it. 

Cities began to establish professional fire departments, and as these organizations grew and became more sophisticated, the need for volunteer firefighters decreased.

Despite the growth of professional firefighting organizations, volunteers continue to play an essential role in many communities. In many rural areas, volunteer fire departments are the primary provider of fire protection. Whereas in many urban areas, volunteers supplement the work of paid firefighters by providing additional resources and personnel.

The Benefits of being a Volunteer Firefighter

There are many benefits to being a volunteer firefighter. Some of these benefits include:

  • Rewards of serving a community

Volunteer firefighters have the opportunity to serve a community and help those in need. Serving gives firefighters a sense of pride and fulfillment, knowing that they are making a difference in the lives of others.

  • Personal and professional growth opportunities

Volunteer firefighters have the opportunity to learn new skills and gain valuable experience that can be beneficial in both their personal and professional life.

On a personal level, volunteering as a firefighter can help build self-confidence and self-esteem because of the chance to perform a vital service for the community.

On a professional level, volunteering can provide networking opportunities and can help build connections within the community.

  • Community and camaraderie

The opportunity to participate in community events and activities can help to further strengthen bonds among firefighters.

uniform of firefighters hanging on a rack

The Challenges of Volunteer Firefighters

Volunteer firefighters also face many of the same challenges as career firefighters. One key difference is that volunteer firefighters do not often receive monetary compensation from their fire department, so they must balance their volunteer responsibilities with their regular jobs and personal lives. Their situation can be challenging, as responding to fires and other emergencies can take time and require a significant commitment.

Physical Challenges

The physical demands of their job can be intense, as firefighters must be in good physical shape to handle the strenuous tasks associated with fighting fires. Duties include carrying heavy equipment, climbing laddders, and performing other physically demanding tasks. Firefighters also need to be able to work in challenging environments, such as in smoke-filled rooms or in buildings that are collapsing.

Psychological Challenges

Volunteer firefighters can experience a wide range of psychological challenges due to the high-adrenaline and dangerous nature of their profession. Although volunteer firefighters typically receive extensive training to prepare them for any situation, they can still experience psychological stress when an emergency arises.

When facing a life-threatening emergency, these brave volunteers are responsible for making quick decisions to save lives and protect public safety. The consequences of their actions mean that they will often have to make tough decisions in a short amount of time, leading to increased mental pressure.

It is important for all first responders, including volunteer firefighters, to take care of themselves mentally and physically during times of crisis to remain effective in safely handling any emergencies they may encounter while on duty.

Risk of Injury

Firefighters risk being injured by flames, smoke, falling debris, and other hazards. Proper training and safety measures can help reduce the risk.

Volunteer firefighters play a critical role in protecting their communities. Despite the many challenges they face, these dedicated individuals are driven by a sense of duty and a desire to serve their fellow citizens.

Their selflessness and bravery are a testament to the noble calling of volunteer firefighters, and they deserve our gratitude and support.

Firefighters heading into ground zero

September 11, 2001. New York Volunteer Firefighters head into ground zero.

The differences between a Career Firefighter and a Volunteer Firefighter

  1. Career firefighters are paid professionals who work in large metropolitan fire departments. Volunteer firefighters are unpaid or minimally compensated individuals who serve as members of community fire departments.
  2. Career firefighters receive extensive training and have a broad range of duties and responsibilities. Volunteer firefighters typically only receive basic training and have limited job duties.
  3. Career firefighters may be required to complete additional certifications such as hazardous materials response or urban search and rescue. Volunteers often focus on more general firefighting tasks such as responding to structure fires, vehicle accidents, or medical emergencies.
  4. Career firefighters generally work in shifts, which means they must be available to respond 24/7. Volunteer organizations are usually more flexible and people can take part in certain duties at specific times of the day or week.
  5. Career firefighters often wear specialized protective equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and other firefighting gear. In contrast, volunteers usually wear more basic protective clothing such as turnout coats and helmets.
  6. Fire service professionals benefit from higher levels of job security compared to those in volunteer service since the government or a private organization employs them.
  7. Both career and volunteer firefighters face dangerous situations regularly. But the risk posed to career firefighters is typically greater due to the larger number of incidents they respond to on a daily basis compared with volunteers.

The noble calling of volunteer firefighting is an admirable and worthy pursuit. It takes a unique kind of courage to be a part of the fire service. It requires extensive training, dedication to performing routine tasks, and being willing to selflessly put themselves in harm’s way when responding to emergency services.

There can be significant rewards for those who choose to join a volunteer fire service. Not only is there a sense of satisfaction knowing they are helping others in need, but also feelings of fulfillment and pride knowing they are making a difference in their community. These emotions make being a firefighter a rewarding and fulfilling profession.

Anyone with the motivation and dedication can become a firefighter; it’s just up to them to take the first step.