Fighting to Save Volunteer Firefighters

History, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on September 10, 2000

Thick smoke was billowing out of the second-floor windows when volunteer firefighter Eugene Paterson arrived on the scene. As other Orland, Maine, firefighters arrived, all could hear the screams of a woman trapped on the second floor of the burning building. Paterson and the other firefighters went to work.

“I could just barely see her in the window, the smoke was so thick,” recalls Paterson, a 52-year-old mill worker with 30 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter. “I knew we had to act fast to save her. My adrenaline was really pumping.”

As soon as the ladder went up, Paterson was climbing, ascending into the rapidly spreading flames and gray smoke produced by the old wood-framed residence. When he reached the elderly, dazed woman in the window, he literally threw her over his shoulder and began his descent. “I just kept thinking we had to get her to (the paramedics) as fast as we could.”

That July day last year, the firefighter most everyone in the town of Orland knows as Eli fulfilled the personal pledge of nearly every volunteer firefighter in America: He was responsible for saving a life.

Although the 80-year-old woman suffered second- and third-degree burns, most of her injuries have healed. And, she has earned a place on Paterson’s list of local people to visit on a regular basis. But even more importantly, it’s likely she inadvertently has contributed to the long-range stability of the Orland Volunteer Fire Department.

“Yes, that’s the kind of thing that really helps with recruitment,” says Steve Willis, Maine’s chief coordinator of volunteer firefighter training programs. “We always seem to need help with recruitment.”

Volunteer firefighters from Maine to California are increasingly difficult to find, train, and keep. Firefighting officials nationwide bemoan this, but they don’t bemoan it publicly, and that may be part of the problem.

“We’re not much to toot our own horns,” says Woody Will of the Kentucky Firefighters Association. “We might get newspaper coverage now and then, but we don’t look on ourselves as heroes.”

The number of volunteer firefighters has dropped nationwide by 10 percent since 1983, according to the National Fire Protection Association, and while the reasons are compelling, they are not insurmountable. Firefighters don’t believe in that word.

“Parents have more demands on their time than ever,” says Will. “Kids have so many activities these days, you can spend every night of the week going to one thing or another. You don’t have time to volunteer.

“At the same time,” he adds, “firefighters need more training than ever: 150 hours to be certified (in Kentucky), and 20 hours a year after that. Modern trucks are computerized, and homes are filled with so much plastic that the smoke isn’t noxious, it’s deadly, so you need a breathing apparatus.”

So what’s the good news? The good news, according to Will, is pride, determination, and a few other things.

“If the truck gets low on fuel, you hold a bake sale,” Will says flatly.

And, more women than ever are joining volunteer departments today. “In the town of White Mills (Ky.) by day, the whole fire department is women. Five of them. When the men get home, it’s men.”

Many towns have learned that a volunteer fire department enables it to spend its limited funds on equipment, not salaries—though sometimes the equipment isn’t grand.

“We’ve got towns with an old flatbed truck, a tank off the farm, and a pump—and it might not be high tech, but it puts out fires,” he says. “And they’re just as proud of that truck as anything.”

To keep their trained people, many volunteer fire departments are offering retirement plans, scholarship funds, and other incentives. They also look for state help, and an intense effort was under way this year to secure federal aid through the National Volunteer Fire Council. It failed, but only for now.

The help is crucial, because volunteer fire departments are ubiquitous across America.

In Maine, 11,000 of the state’s 12,000 firefighters are on volunteer rosters. Don Bryant of Arrowsic is one of them.

“I got into it because my father was a volunteer firefighter,” says Bryant, who grew up in the central Maine town of Dexter. As with many volunteer fire departments, Dexter’s was a social organization, as well as a place to learn the demanding work of a firefighter.

Bean or spaghetti suppers and other fund-raising events brought townspeople together, focusing attention on the department, and its needs and opportunities. The department was a place where teenagers and young men could channel their energies into something productive for the community, Bryant says.

In a time of crisis, people who needed help usually knew the men and women who were helping them. “There was a good feeling about that,” recalls Bryant, 42.

Bryant left his hometown of Dexter to go to college, and eventually landed a management job at a shipbuilding company, the Bath Iron Works in distant Bath, Maine. He settled into the small, nearby coastal community of Arrowsic, where he and his son both joined the volunteer fire department, and Bryant himself served for six years as chief of a dozen volunteers (two of whom are women).

“There’s an awful lot of work in it, and that means committing a lot of time to it,” says Bryant, whose three children were approaching college age. His regular work duties at the shipyard also were increasing. Something had to give, and finally the father-son team of the Bryants had to end their volunteer duties.

“Arrowsic is a perfect example of how communities are struggling to protect themselves from fire,” says Maine’s fire administrator, Willis. Even with technological advances in firefighting—lighter, quicker water-based foams in some regions are steadily replacing plain old hose-and-water applications—Willis says more volunteers will always be needed. And the accolades from saving a life or a house are still an attraction.

“Generally speaking, when the world falls apart, people call the fire department,” says Fred Windisch, the former head of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, noting that a firefighter’s need to be needed is a big draw to a tough, payless job.

Orland firefighter Paterson agrees. His rescue last year earned him the American Red Cross’ Real Heroes Award, which he describes as an enormous honor.

Age, and nothing else, will eventually prevent Paterson from being a firefighter, he says, but even then he’ll continue helping the department with fund-raising, training, and in other ways.

“We’ve got a lot of good people coming up in the department,” he says, with no small hint of pride.