When you live in towns as small as those many of us live in, budgets can’t always support a full staff of professional firefighters. Instead, our towns rely on a mix of professionals and volunteers. Having grown up in Falmouth, I understood this need in its most general terms.
One Christmas Eve, more than 20 years ago, we heard a loud explosion from the general direction of our basement. My mother dialed 911 and apologetically explained that the house might or might not be on the verge of combustion. Minutes later, a large hook-and-ladder truck carrying a crew of firefighters descended down our driveway.
The firefighters stoically entered the chaos of our home, diagnosed the problem, and fixed it. We begged them to take some dessert, or to give us their full names so we could erect an obelisk in their honor. They graciously declined all our efforts at coronation.
Back then, all I knew was that (1) the man in charge was also the father of two boys we went to school with, and (2) he and his team were the most capable people I had ever encountered. My mother explained that not only were they far more competent than any adult we shared DNA with, but they also provided their time as a community service. Even at our tender ages, we knew to digest this information with open-mouthed, solemn-eyed awe.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and I now find myself the lucky wife of a guy who goes places with a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’m startled out of a deep sleep by the soul-shattering beep of that walkie-talkie.
About a year ago, my husband became a volunteer firefighter. He was recruited by the man who saved my family from itself all those Christmas Eves ago. And I am starting to better understand our unique communities of first responders.
Our volunteer firefighters work alongside the full-time professionals. The volunteers are issued those darling walkie-talkies so that they hear every call as it comes through dispatch. If they can participate in the response, they head immediately to the fire house, throw on their gear, and climb onto the truck.
In order to participate fully, the volunteers must go through extensive training. My husband has been fortunate enough to participate in the program coordinated by the North Yarmouth Fire and Rescue Department. He and his teammates gather two nights a week for classroom instruction, and then about one Saturday a month for live practice. They will take the written and practical state certification exams in the spring.
The breadth of their instruction is impressive. These men and women, who by day are financial planners and farmers, college students and attorneys, are learning to do vehicle extractions, to climb onto the roof of a burning building wearing 60 pounds of gear, and to assess the source of a fire by looking at the flames.
Perhaps more inspiring, the volunteers are learning camaraderie and teamwork from which so many other institutions can benefit. Resources are communal, with gear from North Yarmouth being shared, an award-winning instructor from Lewiston lending expertise, and subject-matter experts from other towns helping out. Communication is paramount. Success is measured holistically, not individually. The chain of command is respected, but it looks both ways – the chief watches out for the rookie just as much as the rookie emulates the chief.
Every call is a case of poetry in motion. The first step onto the scene affects every step that follows. The word not spoken becomes the most meaningful. The eyes that cannot see anything because of the smoke must see everything because of the stakes.
These people who moments ago might have been asleep, or mowing the lawn, or on a conference call, transform from human to super-human faster than you can say “Spiderman.” As they don those heavy black jackets and those big yellow boots, they also assume a mantra that will catch your breath:
Risk a life to save a life.
Be awestruck. Be proud. Be thankful.
And maybe, be a volunteer.