Are You ‘Only’ a Volunteer Firefighter?


Having been a proud volunteer for more than 44 years, I can tell you that I am not “only” a volunteer! Yet, over the course of my career and my travels, teaching in many different departments and at FDIC International, I have heard this phrase many, many times. When I hear it, my blood pressure increases dramatically; I have to work hard to keep my temper in check; and I try and counsel the person who said it to never, ever, say that phrase again!

Let’s talk about why we still hear this phrase and what I suspect are the roots of it. My fire service career began in 1977, when I joined a small rural town fire department. Its capabilities were in many ways what we would expect back then—poorly run and a total lack of leadership (the chief’s favorite answer was, “Because I said so”). We did things the way so many did and unfortunately still do. The old tried and true “That’s the way we do it here” syndrome was in play, and complacency and ignorance ruled.

My problem then was twofold: I fell in love with the fire service, and I wanted to be a good and very capable firefighter. So, I worked hard, read Fire Engineering every month (no Internet then, folks!), attended numerous training classes outside my department, and networked with firefighters who could teach and inspire me. And, 44 years later, I still read and take classes. You see, learning for a good firefighter never ends.

Now back to the question: Are you only a volunteer? How many of you, when asked, “What do you doing for work?” briefly talk about your full-time job and then steer the conversation to the fact you are a firefighter? And then you should stop right there, but you say it: “Well, I’m only a volunteer.” Why do we degrade ourselves? For many reasons, many volunteers see themselves as second-class firefighters. Frankly, in some cases, they are. Why? They are poorly trained, they don’t want to better themselves, and being a “firefighter” gives them something to brag about. But the fact of the matter is, they really can’t do the job!

And then there are the rest of us. When I was fairly new at this, I was caught in the “only” trap. The reasons for this vary. For me, it was because of the regional politics where I lived. Volunteers were seen (through, in many cases, “fake news”) as incapable and not worthy of the title firefighter. Many career firefighters did not see the volunteers as professionals. Even thought I trained, worked hard, and sought out knowledge and skills, I still saw myself as lower class. Now, this stigma is still there nationwide, and we need to remove it.

Change in Thinking

For me, the change in mindset began when I attended a class offered by the Massachusetts Fire Academy. A logo on the academy ladder truck proclaimed, “Professionals training professionals.” This struck me hard, as I considered myself a volunteer, not a professional. I asked about that logo, since so many of the students were volunteer firefighters. The late Bill Hollick, then the director of the academy, replied that all firefighters, if they are well-trained and capable of doing the job properly and safely, are professional! Professionalism is what you know, how you apply what you know, and your level of competence. It has nothing to do with who employs you. From that moment on, I knew I was a volunteer firefighter, not “only” a volunteer.

So, what makes us professional, and how do we achieve that level of competence? To begin, let me share some of my core philosophies.

  • I believe there are only two types of people on the fireground: firefighters and civilians dressed as firefighters.
  • I believe that the only difference between firefighters is their training and their ability to do the job safely and efficiently.
  • I believe that belt buckles, T-shirts, and 732 blinking lights on your truck or car do not make you a firefighter—only training does!

As volunteers, we cannot fall into the trap that since we are “only” volunteers we don’t need intense training from inside or outside our department. We must realize and accept that when we learn something once, we will not retain that knowledge or skill for a lifetime without additional practice. Fires are not different for volunteers, but our capabilities, our training, our members’ skill levels, and our experience levels vary.


What is your attitude about being a firefighter? If you are in it for the social aspects only, then please don’t be offended, but join a social club—not the fire service. Being a volunteer firefighter is not a hobby or a club. It does have social aspects, but that should be a distant second to the real job. Being a volunteer firefighter is a vocation and a passion for professionalism. It is committing to your community to protect and save lives. It is saying yes to training constantly, responding at all hours in any weather, and providing needed services to communities that can’t fund a career department. It is hard, strenuous, dirty work. It is living joys and tragedies.

Being a professional volunteer firefighter puts us in a unique position. People look up to us for what we do, they count on us to be there when needed, and they rely on our ability to do the job. We professional volunteers feel the weight of responsibly on our shoulders, but we have pride that we can carry it! Having the right attitude is just the first step.


What is your department training like—organized and well-run by instructors who know what they are doing? Does it start on time, or do you hang around for 30 minutes or longer waiting for more people? Does your training meet the needs and qualifications of being a good firefighter? You need to constantly hone skills to stay sharp. This takes a commitment to constant training. Training is a significant factor in doing the job. But, do you really think we all train with intensity, seeking a high level of competence?

Now, let’s be realistic. If you have a zero chance of being called to a high-rise fire, yes, you avoid that training. However, don’t neglect training on the deployment of high-rise packs. Do you have large buildings, even if they are only one or two stories, such as schools, nursing homes, and offices? Your preconnects are not going to reach. How are you going to get water on the fire? High-rise packs might be the answer.

You need to make training your number one priority. To fail here will only reflect on your department’s capabilities—or lack thereof—on the fireground. It is these failures that fuel those who take joy in taunting us as “only volunteers.” You can make a difference!

Joe Nedder is deputy chief of training for the Mendon (MA) Fire Department. He was an on-call firefighter for 36 years, serving in various ranks. He retired from the Uxbridge (MA) Fire Department in 2013. He has been involved in training for more than 30 years and has taught at FDIC International, has written for Fire Engineering, is the founder and lead instructor of Cross St. Associates, and is the author of Managing Risk in the Volunteer Fire Department (Fire Engineering) and Rapid Intervention Crews (Jones and Bartlett).

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