According to the National Fire Protection Association, 69 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
That’s a solid majority.
Volunteer firefighters contrast with career firefighters, who work full-time and receive a full salary. But make no mistake about it, volunteers do perform fire suppression and other related emergency services for their own local jurisdiction, similar to career firefighters. What you may not know is that volunteer firefighters can receive some compensation and benefits, as noted below.
Volunteer Firefighter Training
Volunteer firefighters go through some or all of the same training as career personnel do, although the exact scope and details of the training vary in different locations.
When volunteers join a department, they often sign up for firefighting classes and other certifications that teach them what they need to know to become a volunteer firefighter.
Examples of these certifications include:
- Firefighter I,
- Firefighter II,
- Emergency Medical Responder
- Emergency Medical Technician
Some departments also require recruits to complete a certain amount of in-house training. During this time, often called the probationary period, the recruit is known as a probationary firefighter, or “probie”. Once the probationary period is complete, the member is eligible to become a full firefighter.
The level and type of basic and specialty training varies across the country. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has several published standards for fire fighter qualifications and training, including Standard for Fire Service Professional Qualifications Accreditation and Certification Systems, and Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. These standards apply to both volunteer and career fire fighters.
Specialty training can include wildland firefighting, technical rescue, swift water rescue, hazardous materials response, vehicle extrication, Firefighter Assist and Search Team, fire instructor, fire officer and others.
Department of Labor Statistics
In the United States, the Department of Labor (DOL) classifies volunteer firefighters as firefighters that receive no compensation or nominal fees up to 20% of the compensation a full-time firefighter would receive in the same capacity.
However, the DOL does allows volunteer firefighters to receive personal benefits such as:
- worker’s compensation
- health insurance
- life insurance
- disability insurance
- pension plans
- length of service awards
- and property tax relief
DOL-defined volunteer firefighters may be paid nominal fees on a per call basis, per shift basis, or various service requirements, but may not be compensated based on productivity such as with an hourly wage.
The terms “part paid” and “paid on-call” refer to firefighters that are receiving some compensation less than the compensation a full-time firefighter would receive. It may often refer to volunteer firefighters that do not qualify as volunteers under the United States Department of Labor. They may also volunteer time for training, public education, fund-raising, and other non-emergency department related activities.
VFD Financial Support
A volunteer fire department (VFD) may be financially supported by taxes raised in a city, town, county, fire district, or other governmental entity, as well as corporate and other private donations, federal grants, and other assistance from auxiliary members, or firefighters’ associations.
VFDs use funds to:
- Acquire and operate firefighting apparatus
- Equip and train firefighters
- Maintain the firehouse
- Funds may also cover insurance, worker’s compensation and other post-injury or retirement benefits.
A VFD may also contract with other nearby departments to cover each other in a mutual aid (or automatic aid) pact as a means for assisting each other with equipment and manpower, when necessary.
VFD Expanded Duties
Depending upon the location and availability of other services, a VFD may be responsible for controlling structure fires as well as forest fires.
Because it may be the only emergency services department for some distance, a rural VFD may also include community first responders, emergency medical technicians, Hazardous Materials response, and other specially qualified rescue personnel.
Law enforcement officers may also be trained in these related duties and overlap with the VFD.
The VFD may also have duties as the local fire inspectors, arson investigators, and as fire safety and prevention education, in addition to being the local civil defense or disaster relief liaison.
A VFD may hold an “open house” at their station.
The event serves many purposes including demonstration, training, drill, fundraising and recruitment. There is no particular format for the VFD open house. It can be formal or informal. The goal is to get public involvement in the VFD efforts.
It is recommended that the open house should include demonstrations of equipment and show and tell. This allows the public to understand how the volunteers are organized in their local community and it is used as a public relations tool.
The combination of demonstrations and drills allow the public and prospective volunteers to see volunteer fire fighters in action while they are participating in the practices.
Nonprofit Volunteer Firefighter Support Organizations
If you’re not a volunteer firefighter, you may not be aware of nonprofit groups that support them.
For example, The Volunteer Firefighter Alliance represents volunteer firefighters across the U.S. They are a national organization that is not affiliated with any local Volunteer Fire Departments (VFD) but they help VFDs recruit members through their national radio, TV and mail outreach programs. They also provide free fire prevention materials and education materials to schools, fire departments, senior centers, and any other at-risk groups.
There’s also the National Volunteer Fire Council (NFVC), which has a mission to “provide a unified voice for volunteer Fire/EMS organizations.” The NVFC is made up of state fire associations, each of which appoints a representative to serve on the NVFC Board of Directors. They represent the fire and emergency services on a national level, providing advocacy, information, resources, and programs to support volunteer first responders.