Some day a very wise wizard armed with a battery of tests and a mammoth computer will speak the final answer to an elusive question: “Why does the volunteer fire service work?” Not all of us will be around to hear the answer.

Until the answer arrives, we content ourselves with speculations. We rely on a host of fresh schemes for recruiting, motivating, and harnessing volunteers to the needs and the apparatus of the local fire department. This leaves fire service leaders floundering in search of new tricks for enticing or coercing the troops year in and year out to do their best and a bit better.

There are places where the volunteer fire service doesn`t work–probably won`t ever work. There are towns where the volunteer fire service is withering and dying, sometimes in prolonged agony, sometimes erratically mutating into something else. Sometimes drying up and blowing away over-night. On the other hand, there are always communities where, for economic or other reasons, only a volunteer fire department can be made to work.

And to naysayers, let it be affirmed that a centuries-old tradition will not vanish without a valiant struggle. There are mysteries here of spirit and of dedication too powerful to be easily snuffed.


The American fire service is no single entity. It takes many forms. It adapts to unique conditions in communities all over the country. It continues to evolve as circumstances warrant. This ferment of change is no cause for despair, except for dreamers who wish all things could remain forever the same.

Two millennia ago, Julius Caesar de-scribed Gaul–better known as France today–as being divided into three parts. Anyone who studied Latin almost surely memorized the immortal opening line from Caesar`s Gallic Wars: “Omnis Gallia in tres partes divisa est.” So it is with the modern fire service: divided into three parts–volunteer, part paid, and career. No surprises there.

The hurdle word is “divided.” Few things divide neatly. Division–short, long, or otherwise–rarely works out evenly. Division leaves unequal quotients and ragged remainders. It is puzzling how the three parts of the fire service, once divided, fail to relate. They no longer add up to a single sum. In some places, neighboring departments are even forbidden to complement each other. It is as though the pieces, once pulled apart, can never be reunited.

One could wish for a greater degree of mutual understanding–even the possibility of fellowship. The three divisions are similar. From the outside, they look alike: same equipment, same activity. The average citizen doesn`t easily distinguish between them. There must be some special thread uniting them beneath the surface, just as an exotic carpet hangs together by the warp and the woof of the weaving process. The personnel who populate the nation`s fire departments are similar. They represent a special fraction of the general population. They migrate regularly among the three divisions. Beneath the divisions extends some kind of undeniable bond.

One could not staff any working fire department by drawing on random passersby on the street. Those who choose the fire service–and endure–are driven by special motivations not witnessed among the general population. The applicability of these driving motivations to the betterment of our communities creates a puzzle worth solving, piece by piece.

But what exactly is it that drives people to the levels of dedication and sacrifice necessary to make any form of the fire service–including the volunteer version–work?


The words of author Diane Ackerman chime a hauntingly familiar tone: “The spirit of Deep Play is spontaneity, discovery, and being open to new challenges. As a result, it allows one to happily develop new skills, test one`s limits, stretch them, and then maybe refine the skills and redefine the limits.” She speaks also of activities that “require daring, risk, concentration, the ability to live with uncertainty, a willingness to follow the rules of the game, and a desire for transcendence.”

Ackerman is a popular writer on subjects dealing with human development and human behavior. Deep Play is the title of her most recent book. In Ackerman`s estimation, “Deep Play is what made us human in the first place … . Deep Play is the force which revitalizes our humanity from day to day.”

Ackerman further defines Deep Play:

Play can be simple, elaborate, crude, sophisticated, violent, or casual. But there is a special caliber of play, akin to rapture and ecstasy, that humans relish–even require–in order to feel whole. We spend our lives in pursuit of moments that will allow these altered states to happen. I call this state “Deep Play.” Swept up by it, one feels balanced, creative, focused, at peace with oneself and the world.

An occasional volunteer firefighter is bold enough to describe his volunteer service as “a very absorbing hobby.” To offer this honest admission is to risk acquiring the slow-witted and envious epithet “hobby-hoser.” Reading Ackerman`s description of Deep Play, one is drawn toward the notion that the volunteer fire service, wherever it works, weaves elements of Deep Play into our very absorbing hobby. The phrase “Deep Play” comes close to describing why we volunteers become so involved in what we do, and let the epithets be damned.

Comparing serious work with any form of play is risky thinking. Some readers will feel offended until each one realizes that people who challenge themselves by climbing the world`s highest mountain peaks are also engaging in Deep Play. They risk everything simply because the mountain is there. Scuba diving to ocean depths, skydiving, and around-the-world balloon flights amount to Deep Play. Deep Play can be deadly serious business. The volunteer fire service becomes that kind of serious business for those who regard it so.


Some people obviously invest themselves in risky and demanding work/play for the sheer love and determination of it. Their friends stand to one side shaking their heads and wondering why they waste their time. There is no easy explanation. Perhaps anyone familiar with the work of the National Ski Patrol recognizes some similarities with the volunteer fire service.

Some years ago, I directed the Ski Patrol at a local ski area. There were 125 members on the patrol. Every winter day and night, snow, rain, or shine, a dozen or so patrollers had to be on duty–for no pay. For no pay they did an intense job. In one typically brief ski season in southeastern Michigan, these 125 people would turn in 12,000 hours of volunteered labor! Admittedly, they enjoyed free skiing privileges for themselves and their families. This benefit amounted to some direct compensation for their effort.

But a special image emerges. Their struggle to strengthen bodies softened by desk jobs and tedious careers, their determination to achieve the necessary qualifications, and their willingness to perform their work on the ski hill under both good and wretched conditions drew them into what Ackerman would call “Deep Play.” And the best of them thrived on it.

Another example. One Memorial Day weekend, the ski lodge hosted a hang glider competition. It was probably the warmest and driest Memorial Day on record. There was only one way to fetch the hang gliders to the top of the ski hill: The pilots hauled them uphill on their backs.

A hang glider is fairly light. The competitors seemed to prosper during the morning hours. They`d transport their gliders to the top of the hill, wait for a favorable uphill breeze, then dash madly downhill until they caught enough lift to launch into the air. They`d enjoy about a 12-second glide to the bottom of the slope. And then they`d trudge the glider back up the hill again.

By early afternoon, the temperature had risen well into the 90s. Humidity approached saturation. Dust stirred by plodding feet on the uphill trail rose to their nostrils. Rivulets of sweat streaked through the dirt caked on their bare chests and faces. Lucky for them, they weren`t obliged to wear NFPA-specified turnout gear.

Standing back, one could only marvel at how nearly this scene resembled the so-called “Via Dolorosa,” the route from the Judgment Hall to the place of crucifixion. The marchers, with their outstretched arms strapped to the crossarms, bent lower and lower beneath the weight of their gliders. They welcomed every sip of water offered by spectators lining the upward way.

One question is obvious, “How much would you have to pay someone to haul a cruciform hang glider to the top of a steep hill and then surrender it for someone else to fly?” The answer is simple. You couldn`t pay anyone enough to do that kind of work. Well, maybe a few bucks to a groupie for the first trip. But no repeat takers.

And yet, the marchers kept plodding. Twenty minutes to the top of the hill. A quick 12-second flight to the bottom. And then another agonizing 20 minutes upward again through the heat and dust.

Why would people subject themselves to that kind of treatment? There`s got to be an explanation.

And the explanation, of course, is that the 12-second ride is worth it! Soaring down the hill is worth the whole 20 minutes of sweat, agony, dust, and thirst. Think about the last time you flopped on the ground in the rehab area and doused yourself with water inside and out after successfully knocking down a residential fire. Was it worth it? Of course it was!

That`s got to be an example of Deep Play. If you doubt it, you might as well wonder why little kids do something equally demanding with their snow sleds in the biting chill of winter. There`s some form of compensation in everything we do. Deep Play furnishes its own reward.


Need another example? Consider your local fire department. There`s got to be a good reason that compels a few special people to subject themselves to hundreds of hours of classroom training and field drills for the privilege of awaking suddenly in the dark hours to a jumble of noise and smoke and blood and sweat and danger and tears. Consider Deep Play as a possible explanation.

There is a story–perhaps of fanciful origin–about a recruiting session conducted by four major branches of the armed services at a local high school. Each recruiter was granted seven minutes to present his case in a half-hour student assembly. But the Army, Navy, and Air Force representatives all exceeded their allotted time. The Marine Corps recruiter strode to the podium with less than two minutes remaining. Standing ramrod straight, he used his first minute to survey the assembly in stony silence. He made eye contact with as many students as possible. Then, in the few remaining seconds, he stated firmly, “I doubt whether there are more than two of you in this room who could cut it in the Marine Corps. I want to see the two of you in the lunch room immediately after this meeting.” With that, he sat down.

Needless to say, he outdrew all the other service representatives. And little wonder. The clever fellow hit his audience right in the Deep Play center of the brain. He captivated them entirely. He ignited a fire in their imaginations that would challenge them to proceed far beyond boundaries they formerly considered safe.

Most people raised in our culture retain the memory of a legendary character able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, all the while outperforming bullets and speeding locomotives.

Seasoned firefighters shake their heads in wonderment at the growing mound of obstacles heaped in the path of the fire service year by year. It should come as no surprise–although it surprises some–that each new generation of volunteer firefighters rises up eager to leap over mountains of state and federal rules. Properly led, they will outrun every conceivable standard. They will snatch imposing regulations between clenched teeth. They will do this because the first few months of their fire service career are a totally absorbing form of Deep Play that generates its own sense of satisfaction. They learned to do this while they were dragging their sleds all the way to the top of the hill –or whatever else it is kids do for fun in flat and snowless places–for the sheer joy of a careening ride back down again.


The magic and the music don`t last forever unless the piper is paid. The sense of Deep Play begins to falter. There comes a time of attrition. It marks a kind of awakening. The volunteer begins to question whether such a massive investment of time and effort is really worthwhile. Family needs increase. Work mounts up. Priorities shift. The enthusiasm begins to fade for the person who just a few months earlier only had to decide whether to move a mountain or leap over it, depending on his mood at the moment. It`s a critical time for members and organization together.

In our locale, the critical period seems to lie between the second and the fifth year of service. During this interval, many members fall by the wayside. Those who survive the fifth year have a good chance of continuing for many more years. What might we do to stretch out their years of Deep Play to retain their services?


If an element of Deep Play helps drive the volunteer fire service, then a whole new realm of leadership opportunity opens up. Play of any kind requires a conducive environment.

Careers have a way of deteriorating to “just a job”–even for doctors and pilots. When one is facing surgery, the better choice would be a specialist who feels a keen sense of enthusiasm about his work. The same holds true for selecting a pilot. You don`t want to fly very far with someone who is totally disgusted with his job and is thinking of dropping out. The fire service is no different. When the old love is lost and the work becomes only a job, the time has come to either regenerate the lost love or scram.

The fire service is entrusted with the maintenance and operation of specialized equipment for the welfare of the community. When the magic evaporates and the instruments and apparatus entrusted to the fire service for community health and safety turn to dead weight in the hands of people for whom the role of firefighter has become just a job, the community is not well-served. A disenchanted firefighter is a menace to himself and his community.

Part of the fault may lie with leadership. An untended playground becomes littered with rocks and broken glass. Surrounding surfaces are scrawled with gang signs and other disheartening graffiti. Roving bullies are no plus. The playground ceases to encourage any kind of play, much less Deep Play. It takes little imagination to translate these wretched conditions into key aspects of the volunteer environment that either encourage or discourage participation.

The same holds true when an activity becomes all work and no play for a leader. Leadership without imagination is deadly boring. When a leader has lost the old spark, he must either reignite or pack it in.


You can get hassled almost any place in life–especially on the job. Hassling does not generate happiness. Fun does. A wholesome life makes room for fun. Serious work demands the kind of fun described as Deep Play.

Creating an environment, a culture, that facilitates Deep Play is a very large order. But you may be reasonably sure that anywhere you find a successfully working volunteer fire department, you will find leaders managing the environment–dare we say it, managing the Deep Playground–either intentionally or by sheer instinct in a way that encourages Deep Play.

Volunteers want a challenge. They want to test themselves. In Ackerman`s words, “Most forms of play involve competition against oneself or others and test one`s skills, cunning, or courage.” The satisfaction sought in Deep Play provides “a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind.”

Wherever the spirit of Deep Play withers and dies, there you find the fire service becoming only a job. And when it becomes only a job, attrition wins the game.

Deep Play leaders referee the game to avoid injury and keep it fun. If there is to be competition within the organization, then it must be controlled competition for the good of the order–emphasis on the word controlled–aimed at resolving important issues, not destroying individuals. We are not to be some kind of obsessive mountain climbers willing to risk the loss of fingers and noses, and perhaps whole lives, for the sake of our own ego-centered Deep Play.

Deep Play leaders maintain a grass-covered playground, free of rocks, broken glass, ugly graffiti–written or spoken–and bullies. Deep Play leaders guarantee the maintenance of all equipment in superbly playable condition. The appearance and mechanics of the equipment have everything to do with pride and morale. Translate that into the development of the most healthful environment for the volunteer fire service.

Deep Play furnishes the threads that bind together all divisions of the fire service by whatever names they go. For the sake of all, do not rule out opportunity for Deep Play in your program. If Deep Play, as described by Ackerman, offers a reasonable explanation for any fraction of the dynamics of the volunteer fire service, then only a true grouch would deny players access to a Deep Playground of the highest quality.

What would you call the sensation felt by a new firefighter the first time he drives the big engine to his own neighborhood to give the kids a ride? Would you call it Deep Play? You`re catching on. Keep going. There`s a lot more where that comes from.

CARL F. WELSER is a 30-plus year veteran of the Hamburg (MI) Fire Department, Inc., where he serves as training officer. He is a certified Firefighter I and Firefighter II instructor, Fire Officer 1, and EMT-S. He has an M. Div and an M.S. in biology and is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board.

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