Editor’s note: The following is the second of a two-part series.
WARSAW — In August 2019, an IFN reader left a comment on a Facebook article about a house fire in Silver Lake. The reader wondered why it was necessary for firefighters from multiple departments to respond to the fire, which was under control fairly quickly.
A Burket volunteer firefighter responded to the comment, explaining that because they are volunteers, it is not known how many people will be available to show up on any given call.
Below is an excerpt from the response:
“Yes, sometimes I’ve been called to a scene by another department only to stand around and wait, but I will do so every time because I’m not there for some statistic, which truly doesn’t matter to us. I am there for my friends, neighbors and my community…
“Additionally, you asked how many were on scene. The answer is — all of them, with time to spare. We treat every call like it was a family member and this was no different.”
The reply references volunteer firefighters — and the desperate need for more of them.
Many fire departments, particularly those in smaller communities, are struggling to secure and retain a full staff.
For some, this may not come as a surprise — you may, in fact, be wondering why anyone would want to be a volunteer firefighter.
The low pay, the interrupted sleep when you’re called out in the middle of the night, the danger involved — it doesn’t sound too appealing. So what inspires a person to become a volunteer firefighter?
Local firefighters we interviewed said they’re definitely not in for the money — or lack thereof.
“We get paid what they call a clothing allowance. Here at Burket, if you go to — let’s say over half the calls, you’d go home at the end of the year with a whopping $250,” Burket Fire Chief Kevin McSherry said. “And that’s supposed to compensate you for fuel and any clothing you might ruin.”
Winona Lake Fire Department Public Information Officer Mike Cox said Indiana state law requires that volunteer firefighters receive an annual clothing allowance of $100 and an annual personal vehicle usage allowance of $100. According to Cox, the town of Winona Lake provides funds over and above those minimums, with WL firefighters receiving compensation based on levels of participation and activity.
“We get paid a small amount at the end of the year to help cover our gas or anything else,” said Scott Shepherd, assistant chief at Atwood Volunteer Fire Department. “A volunteer firefighter is not in it for the money.”
Civic duty, camaraderie and family tradition appear to be the main motivators.
“I always wanted to be a firefighter. My parents raised me and my brothers to help other people and not to expect anything in return because you never know when you or your family may need help,” said Silver Lake Fire Chief John Conley. “This lesson from when I was young carried with me when I got older, so joining a volunteer fire department seemed like the thing to do.”
Other volunteers offered their impressions.
“Not to sound cliche, but it starts with the desire to serve your community. There is a strong, rich tradition of brotherhood in the fire service and I strongly believe that it’s a calling,” said Chris Francis, public information officer for the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office, who also serves as the Tippecanoe Township Trustee.
Francis has been involved with the North Webster/Tippecanoe Township Fire Department for over 20 years. Prior to assuming the township trustee position, Francis was the deputy fire chief.
“You try not to worry about the danger aspect of it,” Shepherd said. “Motivation comes from helping your community, young and old — plus driving the big trucks isn’t so bad either.”
Shepherd’s father has been a fireman for over forty years, and his brother and brother-in-law are also firefighters.
“There’s a lot of family involvement,” McSherry said, specifically mentioning the Haines and Warren families and referring to all of them as “great men.”
“We have a phenomenal group of men and women amongst our volunteer ranks and I greatly appreciate everything they give our township,” Francis said. “It requires a tremendous amount of dedication to become a volunteer firefighter.”
“It’s been my experience that people become involved in emergency services because they have a desire to serve, to help their neighbors and to make their unique skills available to their communities,” Cox said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to belong to a group of people willing to give of their time, sometimes their money and their hard work to sacrifice family time to try to lessen the burden and sorrow that often comes from a fire or other tragic event.”
Posts on the Kosciusko County Fire Association Facebook page speak of the brotherhood among firefighters.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re volunteer or career, the brotherhood is strong. We work together and train together and we have each other’s backs regardless of rank, career or volunteer” one post reads.
“It’s true,” McSherry confirmed. “You can ask any of the Kosciusko County fire chiefs and you’ll get the same answer … there is no division — we all bleed the others’ blood. God bless the firefighters.”
To read the first story about volunteer firefighting, click here.