Daniel has over a decade of Texas EMS and public service experience.
How to Become a Volunteer Firefighter
It is estimated that 70% of the United States fire service is staffed by volunteers.
Unfortunately, volunteers are decreasing while call volumes are increasing. A need exists for a new generation of volunteer firefighters and the opportunity awaits for most who apply.
This article describes the process of joining a volunteer department by addressing:
- What is a volunteer firefighter?
- Are you eligible to be a volunteer firefighter?
- Where do you find a volunteer fire department?
- The application process
- The time committment
- The benefits of being a volunteer firefighter
Being a volunteer firefighter is one of the most rewarding positions a person can fill in their community and requires little to no experience to get started.
What Is a Volunteer Firefighter?
The mission of the fire service is to save lives and protect property.
A volunteer firefighter is one who chooses to fulfill this mission voluntarily as opposed to being compensated. Most volunteer firefighters serve within their communities as a form of public service.
In order to save lives and protect property, a volunteer firefighter is expected to take part in fire suppression, vehicle rescue, medical first response, public education, fire prevention, HAZMAT, radio communications, apparatus management, and more. The roles and responsibilities of a volunteer firefighter are numerous. Volunteers receive training from their departments to meet these responsibilities.
The majority of volunteer firefighters are people who work in a non-fire related field and serve their communities when an emergency happens. They may respond from their homes during day or night or they may work scheduled shifts at an assigned station.
Volunteer firefighters are trained by their departments to meet these needs and be exceptional public servants. Some volunteers enjoy the fire service so much they eventually join career departments and make it their full-time job.
Different people have different reasons for why they volunteer. For some, it is public service and for others, it's an adrenaline rush. Regardless of the reason, it is hard to find a more selfless breed than those who volunteer their health and safety for another.
Are You Eligible to Be a Volunteer Firefighter?
Although the position is open, not everyone is eligible. Every fire department has a list of disqualification criteria and the criteria varies per department. Listed below are some common disqualifiers to consider prior to applying.
A criminal record is not an automatic disqualified, but many departments heavily weigh the following:
- No felonies
- No high-grade misdemeanors
- No recent DWI or DUI convictions
- No excessive traffic violations
- No history of family violence
- No recent drug convictions
Criminal background checks are normally required due to you being a public servant that has access to people's homes, property, and lives. It's important that each department can back their public servants if moral character is questioned and to uphold their responsibility to the public. Additionally, issues like excessive traffic violations, can make it difficult for the department's insurance to cover you driving the department's vehicles, which limits your functional contribution.
As stated earlier, each department varies regarding its criminal background requirements. Check with your local department beforehand.
Physical fitness is necessary to accomplish many significant firefighting tasks but not all volunteer firefighters are physically fit. While physical fitness is a desired strength, some volunteers are obese, have osteoarthritis, or have other physical limitations.
The physical requirements to join a volunteer department are different for every community based on the needs of the community.
Some volunteer fire departments are located in areas where fit volunteers are at a surplus. They may administer a physical agility test requiring a series of physical feats to test both strength and endurance similar to this exam with Northwest VFD near Houston, TX.
Other volunteer fire departments are located in areas where volunteers are scarce. They need people who can drive, operate pumps, assist with vehicle extrication, prepare landing zones, and more. They may waive a physical agility test and only require a physician's physical exam to join the department.
Although firefighter calendars create a mystique about firefighter fitness, volunteers of all shapes and sizes contribute to a community's fire protection. It is all department-specific.
Very few volunteer fire departments discriminate based on education. Although a high school diploma or GED will open opportunities toward future certifications, many departments do not list the holding of a GED or higher as a must.
Most departments require you to be 18 or older in order to apply.
For those that are younger, the National Volunteer Fire Council encourages departments to use a Junior Firefighter Program. This can be an entry point for a future firefighting career.
Few departments have a maximum standard age. As listed in the physical fitness portion, different communities have different needs. Some rural communities depend on firefighters well over 50 due to a small number of young adults in their area.
You may be disqualified if you have a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge. This falls in line with character issues and being able to vouch for you if your moral character is questioned.
Where Do You Find a Volunteer Fire Department?
In order to be a volunteer firefighter, you must find either a volunteer or combination department that is open to your participation.
A volunteer department is staffed primarily by volunteers with the possibility of paid executive personnel. A combination department is staffed by both paid and volunteer firefighters in order to complete its mission. A combination department normally has a paid duty crew of two to four firefighters that primarily respond to calls and are augmented by volunteers as needed. If your community is serviced by a career (paid) department, you may have to widen your search for a volunteer or combination department.
The best place to start is where you live. Some volunteer fire departments have residency requirements. They will only allow you to volunteer if you live within a certain mileage from their response area.
The purpose behind this is simple: They need volunteers who can receive an alert regarding an emergency and be likely to respond.
Not everyone has the opportunity to volunteer in their home community due to metros having a high number of career departments. This may cause you to search for a combination or larger volunteer department that allows shift work. Atascocita VFD is an example of a department that allows nonresidents to volunteer with the agreement they work two 12 hour shifts per month.
Contacting the Department
Different departments have different levels of accessibility. If you live in a rural community, it is best to type in your community's name + VFD into a search engine and see what is found. Here is an example from my hometown.
Some departments have websites under their city's page, some have department-specific web pages, some only have a Facebook or social media account, and others only have a phone number listed on the search engine. It may take you some digging to find a link to the department.
It's important not to judge a department's capabilities by its electronic footprint. As stated earlier, 1/3 of the nation's firefighters are over the age of fifty and were not raised in the internet era. They are still stellar departments to joint and may appreciate someone who can help with their internet presence.
Once information is found, contact the department. Sometimes email addresses are out of date or inaccessible due to changing personnel. If no answer is given, network locally to find a suitable contact. If all else fails, contact a local elected official and they should be able to guide you in the appropriate direction.
Percentage of Volunteer Firefighters by State
The Application Process
When you decide to apply you may asked to go through three main phases:
- Written Application
- Physical Agility
Filling out a written application is normal for the majority of the departments. An example of a written example can be found here.
They key to the written application is being as honest and accurate as possible. Traffic violations, employment history, and criminal background should not have glaring omissions. It is better to be honest about your background than appear dishonest by hiding it.
You may need to gather a lot of personal information and documentation for this application. It's the equivalent of a job application.
Some departments may have you perform a physical agility test to see if you can meet the minimum physical standards they have in place for their system.
Here is an example from Little Elm Fire Department near Dallas, Texas.
Physical agility tests vary widely by department. A common task is a dummy drag of one hundred pounds or more. If a department has a ladder truck, a specialty task may include climbing to the top to test your reaction to heights. Your local department should be able to share with you the physical agility requirements, if in place.
The final component is the interview. This is for the department to get a good idea of who you are why you are interested in joining. The interview is a formality for some departments and the most important component in others.
The key is to be prepared and to be yourself. If interviewing is not your thing, this list of fifty fire-related interview questions is a great place to start. Simply write out answers to each question so you're not blindsided in the middle of an interview.
Interviews may be conducted by a single person, normally the Chief, or by a panel. It's important to be prepared for either if your department does not tell you beforehand.
A decision should be readily available once the application components are complete. If accepted, it's time to enter your probationary period with the department by receiving assigned gear and participating in assigned training. If denied, you should receive an answer as to why and if anything can be done to help with reapplication.
The Time Commitment
The time commitment for every department is different and can be divided into four areas:
- General Meetings
- Business Meetings
- Call Response
Fire departments conduct general meetings to handle the general needs of the department. These needs can include internal training, vehicle and equipment maintenance, and anything required for department or personnel upkeep.
The number of meetings per month differs per department. Some departments require weekly meetings while others require only monthly. These meetings generally begin in the evening and can last three to six hours.
Most departments have an attendance policy in order to stay in good standing. As long as you meet the required attendance percentage, it's acceptable to miss a small number of meetings to spend time with family, take care of job items, or enjoy personal time.
Business meetings are where the governing board meets to run the business of the department and where voting actions take place. They are fewer than general meetings and time varies based on business addressed. Some departments hold business meetings separate from general meetings while others combine the two to save on time.
The attendance policy for these types of meetings varies by department, but will follow a similar percentage to the general meetings.
Training is a significant time commitment. You may have to complete a basic firefighting course during your probation period that requires multiple weekends or weeks to complete. This may also be coupled with training for medical response certification.
Training continues well beyond the probationary period. You may be asked to receive wildfire training, advanced medical training, operational training, and leadership training.
The amount of time for this varies and normally increases with responsibility. It varies by department and some firefighters may have no additional training opportunities beyond the general meetings.
Call response is an unpredictable time consumer. A minor motor vehicle accident may be cleared within an hour while a grass fire may evolve into a multi-day response.
Emergency calls also happen during nights, weekends, and holidays. They can be disruptive to many scheduled events.
Most departments have a participation requirement for call volume. You are not expected to make every fire or medical call so there are days you can turn off your pager and focus on you, your family, or your interests.
Time commitments vary. The main conflict with volunteer hours normally occurs when families have volunteers leave for a call response in the middle of family time. It's important to include anyone who may be affected by these time commitments into your decision to volunteer.
What Are the Benefits of Being a Volunteer Firefighter?
There is a wide range of both tangible and intangible benefits to being a volunteer firefighter.
Tangible benefits mainly center around education and experience. These can include:
- Free firefighting training
- Free medical training
- Nonprofit management experience
- Tuition exemption for a college degree
- Life insurance
- Discounts at select businesses
- Free housing
If you live in Texas, here is a previous article about the underused benefits available to volunteer firefighters.
Intangibly, you may find purpose in meeting the needs of the community. Few feelings are better than successfully responding to someone's emergency. This can increase self-confidence, provide an outlet for stress, and help with quality of life.
If you've ever wanted to volunteer as a firefighter, the need exists and the opportunity awaits. Contact your closest department and begin a new journey in helping others.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Daniel J Owens (author) from Texas on June 13, 2018:
Yes it does. It's a great group of men and women!
peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 13, 2018:
It takes a lot of experience, bravery, knowledge and prepare to die anytime.