The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 21—A Typical Night in a Volunteer Firehouse

By Thomas A. Merrill

Another day, another article appears in my hometown newspaper or a story on a national newscast detailing episodes of scandals, administrative blunders, and a lack of accountability with local and national politicians as well as with many so-called “professionals” in private and public offices.

It can get pretty depressing. Daily reports of malfeasance and misfeasance leaves one wondering if there are any true leaders out there possessing integrity, exemplifying professional service and competently fulfilling the duties and responsibilities expected of them. Are there any leaders out there who work to benefit their organizations and their communities, giving absolutely no thought of personal gain through illegal or unethical methods? Leaders who embrace teamwork and selflessness and work to promote a harmonious working environment by taking care of their people? I was beginning to have my doubts.

Fortunately, one night spent at my little volunteer firehouse helped remind me that there are such people out there who really do work for the greater good and not simply for personal gain. There are people who can competently fulfill the duties expected of them and not make feeble excuses for incomplete work or not following established rules and laws. I was reminded of this by witnessing the work being done by our volunteer firefighters: professional volunteer firefighters.

I was feeling aggravated as I headed up to my firehouse for our weekly training drill. Before leaving my house, I was subjected to yet another story airing on our local newscast detailing even more dysfunctional behavior involving elected officials and highly paid public administrators.

As frustrated as I was, I was looking forward to some time at the firehouse because, as you all know, the firehouse can serve as what I like to call “The Great Escape”—a place you can go for a short period of time and escape the pressures of daily life.

The drill was not going to be anything fancy or elaborate on this particular night. It was the last Wednesday of the month which, for us, is always an emergency medical services (EMS) drill. Our drill instructor was our department’s EMS captain. He explained that we were going to review some programs as we were required to do on a regular basis. He put together a nicely packaged presentation outlining our procedures for administering Narcan to an overdose victim, Epinephrine to a person suffering an allergic reaction, Albuterol treatments for the asthma patient, performing glucose monitoring on a suspected diabetic, and using a defibrillator on patient in cardiac arrest.

After the review, the captain told us that each emergency medical technician (EMT) also needed to demonstrate competency with those products and that it needed to be documented. As members rotated through the different stations, the captain kept a detailed training log for each member to sign off on when the member completed their hands-on training correctly.

As I was going through the stations, I found myself thinking about how our EMS captain is a school teacher during the day. This means he did all this drill preparation after his long day at school and after school obligations and also after all the other “life” obligations he had to take care of. His focus was to put together this informative, up-to-date drill presentation and to ensure our members were competent and our department compliant. He even notified our members who had not yet completed the recertification and made them aware of the opportunity to do it at this drill.

After the drill, he accurately completed the necessary paperwork and neatly filed it away to make sure it was available for easy access in case a member needed it to verify that he had done it.

No bad headlines or news stories here; this was just a competent professional volunteer fire officer doing his job because it was the right thing to do for his organization and the community he helps protect.

During a break from the drill, one of our members reported that his EMT certification was expiring at the end of the year. He was worried he might not have enough required hours for automatic renewal. Our department line clerk who handles tracking member’s training hours and training certifications went over to his computer and printed out a spreadsheet that he designed which outlined exactly how many hours the member had put in. With this information, our member now knew exactly how many additional hours he needed and what categories of training those hours needed to encompass. The report used to help figure this out was designed by our line clerk simply to help our organization out. Again, no nasty headlines here. This is just a professional volunteer firefighter taking his duties and responsibilities seriously for the benefit of the organization.

As I walked by the chief’s office, I noticed our chief officers huddled together. They were discussing our department’s compliance with New York State’s mandated bailout program. This program requires all state fire departments (except in cities with a population greater than one million) to conduct a written risk assessment to determine if personnel at structure fires are at risk for entrapment at elevations. If the risk assessment indicates that there is such a risk, then each interior structural firefighter must be equipped with a suitable personal escape rope system. In addition, each firefighter issued a self-rescue rope must be properly trained, and the department must develop a system for routine inspections.

This required an incredible amount of work by department leaders. The risk assessment alone involved many staff hours. Researching what equipment to purchase, training all the members when it was purchased, ensuring the equipment is inspected regularly, and documenting the inspections proved to be a continuous and laborious task. Of course it is but one of the many tasks that any fire department must complete on a regular basis; tasks that get done by department members and leaders after their “day at the office”; tasks completed by professional volunteers.

After the drill was over, I went out to the apparatus bay and noticed several fire officers performing checks on self-contained breathing apparatus, apparatus, and equipment. They were checking over all the important tools of our trade to ensure the department was standing tall and ready to roll and fulfill the expectations a community has of its fire department. Officers were working hard making their department a professional volunteer fire department. It was a reminder to me of all those news stories I was reading involving well-paid officials not being properly prepared or failing to comply with rules, regulations, and mandates charged to their organization.

I walked by our board of director’s office and witnessed several members reviewing the department’s financial statements while the department treasurer was getting the two required signatures on some checks he was about to mail out to various department vendors. This reminded me of a news story I read a year ago that discussed how several businesses were suffering economic hardship because a local municipality had not paid them for goods and services they provided because of bungled bureaucratic processes,  poor oversight, and (quite honestly) total arrogance.

Off in a small dusty room in the firehouse, a small group was reviewing the department bylaws. Our president assigned these members the task of ensuring our by-laws were up to date and in compliance with current laws and public expectations. Outside this room, one of our senior members was busy putting on a final coat of paint in a hallway. As we exchanged small talk, he yawned deeply and told me he has had a long day that started with a very early morning meeting at his “paycheck earning job.” I looked at my watch and saw it was approaching 10 p.m. I was reminded of another recent new story outlining how a school district missed a paperwork deadline, which cost them some much needed state funding because, as one well-paid district official said, “They ran out of time.”

Entering our clubroom, I watched our members gathering together, enjoying the post-drill meal. A group of our junior members sat at a table with some of our senior members. They laughed and had a good time together. For all I knew, the veterans might be passing on some of our great department stories. Or, they might be giving them some worldly advice. No matter, they were acting as positive role models. These young members are surrounded by such people on a daily basis.

It must bring great comfort to their parents knowing they were at the firehouse with so many honorable people doing incredible work as opposed to some of the other things they might be tempted to do at their young, impressionable age. Even if these young men and women spend just a short time in the department, it will leave a positive impression on them. They will take with them lessons learned that will benefit them the rest of their lives, no matter what occupation they choose.

Yes, it turned out to be a great night for me. However, it was a typical night in a typical volunteer firehouse. Stories like this are repeated daily in volunteer firehouses everywhere. Things got done by dedicated members after working at their demanding, paycheck-earning job after helping their kids with their homework, coaching a little league game, or running to grocery store. Then, it was off to the firehouse to train and competently fulfill the jobs expected of them. It was off to the firehouse to faithfully and honorably serve their community.

Certainly, there were no newspaper stories or broadcast news reports about this. But, a vivid reminder that even though we might be constantly subjected to newscasts and articles that are full of stories about scandal and incompetence, there remains some good people out there who serve with honor, act as positive role models, possess integrity, embrace teamwork, and competently take care of their responsibilities. They are members of the professional volunteer fire service.


Thomas A. Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at


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