Ten things I’ve learned from volunteer firefighting

As one of the newest members of the Guilderland Fire District, I have a lot to learn. Yet even in the short couple of months I’ve been a volunteer firefighter, I’ve experienced so much. Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 things I’ve learned so far.

Serving is a privilege

Even though it’s volunteer, it’s still a privilege to serve as a volunteer firefighter. When you are wearing the turnout gear, riding in the truck, or participating in a drill, you represent the district. It is only fair to the taxpayers to show them you are responsible with how you act, how you take care of the equipment, and how seriously you take the responsibility.

Fortunately, the level of commitment at GFD is through the roof. I’m extremely proud to serve with such dedicated men and women. Still, I don’t take the opportunity I’ve been given lightly, and I hope my upcoming training goes well;

Size matter

Everything in firefighting is big and heavy. The trucks, or “apparatus,” are humongous. The clothes are tough, thick, and heavy. The Jaws of Life (the portable electric one, there is a hydraulic one as well) weighs 55 pounds, making it very hard to wield unless you’ve been eating your Wheaties on a daily basis.

Why is everything so big, strong, and robust? Because fighting fires is serious business, obviously. The only way to be prepared for the worst is to have the best equipment, to maintain that equipment, and to train everyone on how to safely and effectively use that equipment. I for one am very glad I live in an area where fire safety, prevention, and first responding is taken so seriously;

Everything in its place

I like to work on my cars and motorcycles. It’s fun to fix something and get it running again. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to look all over the place for a tool I know I have. It’s so frustrating to waste time like that.

Well, that does not happen at the firehouse. Everything has a place, and everything is constantly verified to be in its place. Part of the “equipment check” we do each week is to make sure every sub-system and tool on each apparatus is there and working properly.

How great is that? When you open a compartment or drawer, you can be certain that what is supposed to be there is actually there. If I could get my garage and tool boxes to be like that, it’d be like hitting Lotto. There is a lot that impresses me about GFD, and organization is at the top of the list;

Old guys rule

I wondered how, as a retired guy, I’d be able to keep up with the physical demands of firefighting. Some of it is very hard work as you can imagine. I’m starting formal training soon, and I am encouraged by the number of “old guys” who do this kind of work.

Each one of them is testament to eating healthy (most of the time), staying active, and keeping mentally fit. One of my buddies at the firehouse is 72, and exercises for 90 minutes every morning. This guy is tough, reliable, and a pleasure to work with. To see so many guys in their “golden years” remain so physically active is a revelation to me. Age truly is just a number;

Never go in alone

One night we had a call-out to an adult living community where a carbon-monoxide detector had gone off. This can be deadly. So I stood at the door to the building, and as each of my qualified team members went in, they handed me their badges. This way I knew exactly how many of us were inside a dangerous situation, and how many needed to come back out.

Doing it this way makes sure everyone is accounted for. You never go in alone, anywhere, period. Even so, the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) that class A firefighters wear to provide breathing air contains a feature that, if the firefighter should go down and be still for any length of time, an ear piercing alarm goes off. That way someone else — never go in alone, remember — can attend to him or her. In a way, “never go in alone” is a great metaphor for life;

Pull your own weight

Let’s face it, in any organization some jobs are better than others. It’s no different in firefighting. Recently I spent seven hours on a cold, dreary December day pumping out basements after a two-day deluge of driving rain. Part of that time was spent clearing out muck, stone, and root-filled drainage ditches with a shovel.

Did I think years ago that hard labor in rotten weather conditions would be part of my retirement? Heck no. But one look at the thanks on the faces of those we helped was all it took to make it all worthwhile. I love being able to directly help my neighbors like this. There is so much volunteer firefighters do besides fighting fires that it’s almost unbelievable. Truly, we are here to help;

Do tasks the right way

The secret to success is doing the simple things correctly, over and over, until they just become habits. Take fire hoses. There are all kinds and all sizes for specific purposes, I’m learning. Rolling up a hose is an art form. After it’s cleaned and dried, both inside and out, it is tightly rolled up from the male end to protect the delicate threads on the fitting. Rolling it up very tightly, which is a lot harder than it sounds, assures that when it needs to be deployed quickly, it can be quickly rolled out like throwing a bowling ball. And once it’s deployed, it is imperative to get all the kinks out so that full water pressure is assured.

I never would have thought there was so much thought, art, and practice in just dealing with hoses. It has been a revelation to me. Now I won’t ever be able to have a messy or unevenly wound garden hose again;

Clean your ride

GFD takes pride in maintaining the expensive apparatus that the taxpayers have paid for. Any time there is a dirty truck — even after returning from many hours fighting a fire, pumping out basements, dealing with an auto accident, or whatever — if there is a speck of dirt on that vehicle, we all pitch in and wash it, right in the firehouse.

It’s like a dance with hoses, brushes, squeegees, and chamois. Many hands make short work, and when we’re done we take pride in how clean and sharp everything looks. One of the pickup trucks we have is 11 years old and it looks brand new. It is so gratifying to be part of an organization that takes such pride in maintaining the very expensive equipment that has been provided for us;

Business is business

There is a very social aspect to firefighting. I’ve made some great friends in my short time at GFD, and we’ve had a lot of laughs together. The men are real “guy’s guys,” the kind you can just hang out with and be yourself. We share jokes and stories and laugh so hard sometimes it hurts. Even the few women we have fit right in and get along with the boys real well.

It’s really fun to have such camaraderie with my co-workers. But, once that call comes in, like a light switch, we go from social to professional in the blink of an eye. Truck assignments are made, turnout gear is donned, and we are out the door. The entire time we are out, we are on it, focusing entirely on the job at hand, until the work is done.

The senior members lead the way, the newcomers help the best we can, and we do what we have to do. I had missed very much being on a team getting things done when I retired. Now I have that feeling again;

Firefighting is apolitical

Our country is split down the middle politically. This division causes a lot of stress. I abhor culture wars and all this kind of stuff. Undoubtedly, one of the best things about being a volunteer firefighter is that it is totally apolitical.

When we go out on a call, it doesn’t matter what party anyone belongs to, or what religion they are, or anything else. We go out to help, period. Same for police, EMS, and military. We all serve the public the best we can. Being involved in the trenches now, dealing with the public under often terrible circumstances, has given me new respect for uniformed professionals and first responders. To be a part of this great legacy in some small way really makes me feel proud. To all the men and women in uniform: You rock, and thank you for your service.

Any time in my life that I’ve volunteered to do anything, I’ve gotten more out of it than I’ve put into it. Being a volunteer firefighter takes a lot of hard work, training, and dedication, but the satisfaction of working with such great people and directly helping the folks in my community makes it all worthwhile.