05 May 2006
by Kali Schumitz
At the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy, volunteers train in a scenario where a comrade is injured. Fire and rescue volunteers must have the same training as career staff. (Photo: Tin Nguyen/Times Community Newspapers)Fairfax county, USA:
- Matt Jones was walking down the street one day when an ambulance passed him. A seed was planted, and he began volunteering at the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department in 2002.
- John Morrison grew up in Vienna, watching the fire trucks go by as he played baseball on the fields near the station. He started volunteering at age 16.
- Both gave about 1,000 hours in volunteer time to the station last year, working at least one 12-hour night or weekend shift a week but also training, attending meetings and helping with fund-raisers and other administrative duties.
What makes 26-year-old consultants – Jones with IBM and Morrison with Booz Allen Hamilton – take on a part-time job with no pay cheque?
It's the practical and leadership skills, a change of pace, a chance to save lives and serve their community. For others, it's a steppingstone to a career.
"It's in your blood," Jones said. "If it appeals to you, you may not realize it until it's called to your attention."
But recruiting and retaining volunteers is getting more challenging, according to Robert Mizer, the volunteer liaison for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
Over the past few years, the number of volunteers has remained stagnant, with bigger challenges in certain areas.
The county's increasing ethnic diversity is not reflected among the volunteers, Mizer said. And one of the greatest needs is for administrative volunteers-accountants to keep the books, people to run bingo nights and a myriad of other duties.
Volunteers in Fairfax County
Since the first volunteer stations, Vienna and McLean, started more than a century ago, the role of volunteer fire fighters and emergency medical technicians in Fairfax has evolved to become a very different system from other jurisdictions.
Since the late 1990s, the volunteers have moved into a supporting role: Mizer compares them to the National Guard.
Every station now has enough career staff to meet minimum requirements at all times. Career fire fighters are the first to respond to any given emergency, but the volunteers are there to fill in the gaps when their professional counterparts are out on a call, in training or out sick.
Because they must have the same training as career staff, training requirements affect recruitment, Mizer said. It takes at least a year before a fire and rescue volunteer is fully trained, and they must attend regular refresher courses and take other classes to gain more advanced skills.
But they continue to try and make the system work for the realities of Fairfax County today, Mizer said.
For example, a recent change to allow people to volunteer as EMTs without also being fire fighters has attracted many new people, particularly women and minorities, Mizer said.
The long-term dedication of volunteers like Morrison is not the norm, although some current volunteers have more than 25 years of service, Mizer said.
"If we can keep somebody for four years, we feel that's a very successful volunteer career," he said.
One of the best ways of recruiting is word of mouth, Mizer said.
Willie Lorenc, 25, began volunteering at the Vienna station when he was renting a room with Jones and another firefighter.
Although they describe fire and rescue service as "long periods of intense boredom followed by very intense moments of sheer terror," the men say sitting around the station waiting for calls is as much a part of the experience as saving lives.
Jones met his fiancée while volunteering, and Morrison said he loves getting to know his fellow volunteers.
"It's a sort of brotherhood"-and sisterhood, Lorenc and Jones quickly added-"that you can't get anywhere else," Morrison said.