From the Jumpseat: Self-Starters

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Mark J. Cotter

“Will B.” batted 1.000 in the action/duty category; that is, the one time he was “on duty” with our department, he went to a working structure fire. A perfect record, some would say, though not necessarily impressive. What is noteworthy is that he was in the right place at the right time to participate in the action not so much by chance, but through his own initiative. Having watched so many recruits arrive both helpless and clueless, such purposeful enthusiasm was a breath of fresh air and provided an example that is worth sharing.

Will had reached the rank of captain in a busy volunteer department about 35 miles away, and then transferred to our company after he bought a home in our district. He had completed the department intake process, which includes a background check, medical examination, and orientation class; and he had been issued personal protective equipment. Volunteer firefighters in our organization can serve by performing in-station duty as well as by responding from home when alerted, such as for working fires, rescues, or additional alarms. Although he was fully vetted, Will had not yet been issued a pager or scheduled for his first shift.

His lone alarm occurred on a warm summer night with thick, dark clouds gathering on the horizon. Recognizing the potential for thunderstorms, and with the resulting increase in calls for alarm activations and downed trees, Will decided to make his way to the station to see if he might be needed. He was already en route and unaware when the rest of the department was alerted for a structure fire caused by a lightning strike. Immediately after he pulled into our lot, his car was surrounded by those of several other volunteers who were responding to the alarm.

Our in-station crew had responded with an engine, leaving the truck (ladder) for the volunteers to staff. Apparatus was also en route from one of our other stations and that of an adjoining town, but ours was the only aerial on the call. None of the other volunteers who responded that evening recognized the new person who “You could tell he knew what he was doing.” The officer got his name and ID tag, and they left the station within three minutes of the dispatch.

At the fire scene, a five-bedroom, 2½-story brick colonial that had been hit dead center by a lightning strike was showing fire in the walls on each floor that was blossoming into the attic; the truck crew had their work cut out for them. Any doubts about the stranger wearing our gear were quickly laid to rest as he demonstrated his prowess in scaling the ladder, handling tools, anticipating orders, and helping to quickly return the rig and tools to ready condition afterward; he was a truckie in his element.

Shortly after that call, the business with which he was employed underwent a merger; he was sent away for training and eventually was transferred to another town. He would never again respond to a call with our department, but I have no doubt his skills are being put to good use elsewhere.

A strong drive like his must have an outlet. One of the things that most impressed me about his “one-hit wonder” story is that he came to the station that night not because he expected an exciting call, but because he anticipated that there may be more calls than the on-duty crew could handle, and he wished to assist. He did not join in merely for the action.

There have been other new arrivals who exhibited such initiative. “Tevona L.” was an emergency medical technician from California who had navigated our state’s emergency medical services licensing bureaucracy and obtained the necessary transfers of her certifications prior to even applying to work with us as a volunteer. Also, “Austin E.” was a young but gifted firefighter attending our local university who dedicated himself to our department for four years and rejuvenated our live-in program for college students.

Now, such volunteers are a rarity; likely, that is what makes their stories so memorable. Certainly, expecting new members to be so eager and competent would be a recipe for failure, and it is important to craft intake processes that both motivate and guide recruits unschooled in the requirements and expectations of emergency services providers. In fact, even those who should have some insight such as the younger offspring of current members and more than a few “seasoned” transferees often come in with a malignant sense of entitlement. This is typically manifested by the belief that the goal—membership—can be reached without the journey (training and orientation). The results of that delusion are usually disappointing for everyone involved.

The opportunity to participate in emergency services activities is part chance and part preparation, but you can only affect the latter. It is the responsibility of each of us to always be ready to serve to the best of our ability. This means continuously striving to have the right knowledge and skills; maintaining our physical and mental health; and being in the right place organizationally, mentally, and physically to do the most good. Repeatedly informing the continuous waves of new participants of this reality is our collective task.


Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years of experience in emergency services. He is a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Cotter can be reached at

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