'We’re just here to help'

Zoe Greszler • May 4, 2019 at 10:00 PM

Some jobs are done for the pay or other benefits. For volunteer firefighters, however, there’s no doubt their driving force is a love of people and a genuine desire to help.

New London Volunteer Fire Chief John Chapin said local volunteer firefighters do much more than just respond to the occasional fire.

His department covers the village of New London, New London Township, Fitchville and the southern portion of Clarksfield Township. The department of 28 men responds to emergency 9-1-1 calls for those areas, fires, motor vehicles crashes and other incidents. He said the most time spent by the volunteers is on training.

To keep their certifications current, volunteers — much like their paid counterparts — are required to complete 54 hours of formal training every three years. On top of that, the department also organizes additional training, Chapin said.

Other duties include keeping the trucks clean, making sure the various equipment is clean and working, and helping with social functions such as parades and community events.


Making a call

When someone calls 9-1-1 to report an emergency in a volunteer fire department’s territory, the Huron County Sheriff’s Office routes that call to the appropriate department.

“Everybody carries a portable radio,” Chapin said. “We try to get out of the station within four to five minutes. Sometimes that’s pushing it … but that’s what we try to do.”

Getting enough firefighters to respond to a call can be challenging at times for any volunteer department, Chapin said.

Though New London’s department has nearly 30 firefighters, “most people work during the day and sometimes some of them can’t leave work,” he said. The department aims to get at least six firefighters on scene. He said some places do allow the first responders to leave at the drop of hat, realizing the importance of the work and the manpower issue.

“Most of the guys there work full time,” Joint Huron River Joint Fire District Chief Kurt Stang said. “Every time they respond, they're being pulled out of their private life. We volunteer to respond to them, but it still pulls them away from their families at a lot of inopportune times — in the middle of the night or during a kids’ ball game.”

Just because the firefighters are rushing to arrive from normal life events, that doesn’t mean the quality of the care is diminished.

“Their fires aren’t any less hot than ours,” said John Soisson, chief of the Norwalk Fire Department, which employs full-time firefighters.

“The (time) is a little different, but the job and the focus is still the same,” Stang said. “It requires the same dedication and work as the other departments.”

All three fire chiefs said the community shows its strong support for the volunteers, realizing the sacrifice.

“It’s the same job that the career departments do. However, I think the community looks a little differently on the volunteers,” Stang said. “They realize the guys are taking their time to help other people.”

Soisson said career departments appreciate it just as much as the community members.

He said volunteers are “crucial,” adding that the loss of these departments would be “devastating to the fire service.” Soisson said there’s no way the NFD could cover all surrounding areas that are manned by the volunteer departments and still provide adequate service. 

“Think of how many rural areas are out there. That’s a lot of territory to cover,” he said.

“It would be devastating to the community, too,” Stang added. “There would be no one to run to the car accidents or the fires or anything when an emergency happened. The quality of care is either going to diminish greatly or be non-existent.”

Soisson said the volunteer departments throughout Huron County are “invaluable.” He said statistics show that nationally, volunteers make up 65 percent of the fire service.


Not for the pay

Do volunteer firefighters get paid? Yes — but barely. 

Soisson said some, such those with the Townsend Fire Department, get paid $1 every year for their life-saving service. 

“It just depends on the department,” Stang added.

Monroeville’s Joint River Fire District firefighters are paid by the call. “So it doesn’t matter if it’s an hour-long event or something that takes all day -— you get paid the same,” Stang said.

Chapin said New London department is paid about $8.55 an hour from the village for the time actually spent on a call.

“We don’t get paid for the time to clean the vehicles or take care of the station or anything,” he said. 

“Nobody does it for the money,” Chapin said. “Last year, we responded to 94 calls. Even if you were to go to all of the calls, you still wouldn’t be making any money. Some guys probably don’t even cover the gas to keep up with the training.

“It’s about a sense of pride and a sense of being a part of the team,” Chapin added. “We’re just here to help. Good people get into bad situations. They call us and we do out best.”

Norwalk Reflector Videos