Editor’s note: Knowing the hard, unpaid work that area volunteer fire departments put in day after day, The Meadville Tribune will publish a four-day series to depict just what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter. We’re also publishing this series as a public call to action to help the volunteer departments, which are always in need of funding and more firefighters. Today’s story focuses on how firefighters deal with balancing their busy daily lives and volunteering.
Ask just about any volunteer firefighter what it takes to do his or her job and you will be told it’s not easy.
On a daily basis, any given volunteer balances the commitments of his or her own life in addition to mandatory safety training, answering dangerous, unpredictable calls and more.
Imagine, for instance, the daily life of an average teenager, fraught with schoolwork, family obligations, possibly one or more extracurricular sports or other activities, then attempt to make time for friends, hobbies and general recreation.
Where does one find the time to take on enormous, additional responsibilities and why would someone tackle the difficulty of such time constraints?
“It teaches you life lessons, like things can be lost and gained in the blink of an eye,” said Shawn Buckley, a teenage volunteer at Summit Township Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s a reality check every time.”
Buckley and his friend, Trevor Mohra, said they’ve benefited greatly from the experience, outfitting themselves with numerous safety skills not only for their own use, but for the use and service of their community.
Both juggle schoolwork, summer jobs and still find time for personal hobbies, typical of the average teenager. The difference is, they can suit up to engage in emergency situations.
“We’re junior members, so we mainly do fire calls with some (emergency medical service) calls if they’re close-by,” Buckley said.
While most teenagers would rather not sacrifice their weekends to do additional work, Mohra theorized, the benefits are indisputable.
“This is probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot and it’s a lot of fun.”
Finding the time for weekly drills including driver training, water pumping, equipment handling and search and rescue simulations isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort when inevitably faced with a real emergency.
It’s also somewhat easier when your family and friends work beside you, Buckley and Mohra agreed.
“I literally grew up in this fire department,” said Debbie Buckley, Shawn’s mother, said about Summit. “My parents got me involved and I just can’t stay away.”
Most recently, she’s been taking emergency medical technician classes, as recommended by her daughter Jennifer, another Summit volunteer.
“I do mostly ambulance calls,” Jennifer said. “We get general illness calls, cardiac arrest, (etc.).”
State-certified training is a major, and oftentimes necessary, supplement to in-house training, Debbie said, providing advanced classes and complex drills otherwise unavailable due to departmental or financial constraints.
While her children have volunteered for about a handful of years each, Debbie said she’s been involved long enough to see other volunteers come and go, leave and succeed. Some went on to other positions in other cities and states, while others became overwhelmed, burnt out or simply discovered that firefighting was just “not their thing.”
“We went from having too many to not enough,” she said. “A lot of volunteer departments are having that problem these days.”
The Buckley family and their volunteer peers do what they do mainly because they recognize the need for emergency services and are willing and able to do their part.
“I’ll never forget that feeling,” Jennifer said, recalling one of her first EMS calls. “I had to do compressions my first time.”
She remembers overcoming her initial nervousness in the face of her family’s medical history.
“I just thought, ‘I could be there to help somebody else,’” she said. “I try to go on as many calls as possible.”
And ultimately, service to community is what it’s all about, agreed volunteer Travis Saulsbery, who in his short term with the Summit fire department already fought the Beach Club fire and assisted Conneaut Lake Park attendees who were stuck on the Blue Streak roller coaster this past year.
“I guess you don’t know what it takes until you start,” he said. “I go on calls as much as I can. Three a.m. is when it’s hard.”
Saulsbery said he’s in good hands with the fire department, knowing many of the volunteers as former classmates and having a good learning experience working with them.
“The best part is the sense of brotherhood,” Shawn added. “We kind of bond with each other over time and even help each other out off-duty.”
Focus on volunteer firefighters four-part series
TODAY: Volunteers: This isn’t easy
WEDNESDAY: Classes keep firefighters sharp
THURSDAY: Meadville to host annual conference
FRIDAY: Insurance law creates financial issues