Unpaid. Professional.

When volunteering is more than not being paid…

Last night, I spent about 90 minutes in a crowded town council meeting room, sitting next to my husband and his volunteer fire department. I was there for defense. (Or offense, depending on your perspective.)

Over the course of the past few months, the town’s all-volunteer fire department has been experiencing increasing tension with their town. The tension seems to be traceable to a 20-something town manager who does not appear to understand the difference between a town employee and a volunteer. He does not seem to grasp that the relationship rural communities have with their fire departments (and many police officers if they rely on reserves) is not contractual.

It is relational.

For reasons known but to him, the town manager escalated the situation by taking the matter to the local paper and involving the council after the fact. His statements cast doubt on their character (they have done nothing wrong) and it made a bad situation painful.

It was humbling to sit among these men and a few women, many with tears in their eyes as they spoke of the work they did, as well as the profound cost of that work which cannot be measured in tax dollars or hours.

In fairness to the child town official, I did not understand the difference between the contractual and the relational in public safety until I moved out here, in the middle of nowhere. I understood it even more when I too decided to don a uniform and carry a pager.

There are volunteer opportunities: delivering Meals on Wheels, tutoring children at a school a few hours a week, answering the phones at a social service agency. Those are valuable and those are necessary. They are, as all services, the rent we pay for life on this earth, to quote Muhammad Ali.

The VFD, EMS and SAR service is something entirely different. The level of training it requires is different. The level of commitment it requires is different. And the motivation is often much more complicated. It has to be to sustain it through the constant inconvenience and threat of injury; to get you to respond every time regardless of the weather, the time of day or what you are doing. The hours of training and studying and physical work put it in a different class: unpaid professional.

Much of America, geographically, is protected by volunteer fire departments, or hybrids of volunteer and professional departments. It is a red state thing, to use political language. When I lived in the city, we had fire stations all over the place and I largely viewed it as a service, the price paid by my tax dollars. I respected them for their work and training, but they were “civil servants.”

That is not why these men and women do what they do. (It’s not why the paid professionals do it either, but that is for a different time.)

By the time the meeting ended Thursday, many of the firefighters were struggling to contain their emotions, so fed up with the unnecessary and the ridiculous.

The work emergency services personnel perform, paid or unpaid, is wearing physically and emotionally. Tearing apart a piece of farm equipment to remove an injured man, tromping through cornfields for hours in the heat to look for the body of the missing, or performing chest compressions on an infant: these are not the typical volunteer opportunities of Americans. But they are the experiences of my loved ones and myself.

We were exhausted by the end of this week. I picked up a pizza on the way home and as we slid slices on our plates, his pager went off.

Twenty-four hours after the fight before the council, he found himself in the dark on a country road, cutting a driver out of a vehicle while his chief prepared a landing zone for the helicopter.

He spent over an hour in the coldĀ alongside his crew and members of another department.

When he got home, and reheated his pizza, he had a smile on his face.

He said the timing of the run was perfect. It reminded him of why he did what he did: serving and helping others.

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A’s chair and dinner awaited his return.