Many join for different reasons but stay to keep their communities safe
Family, community and their love of the job are just a few reasons why volunteer firefighters do what they do. But they also sacrifice time with their families, balance full-time jobs and put their lives on the line to help their community. October is Fire Prevention Month, and volunteer firefighters from rural communities in eastern Nebraska reflected on why they chose to join.
For Tom Christensen, Blake Wagner and Carl Nielsen, the decision to volunteer was easy; they all had family members who were volunteer firefighters, paid firefighters or both.
Christensen, a captain at the Fremont Fire Department and firefighter for the Arlington Volunteer Fire Department started volunteering in 1992, two years before he became a paid firefighter in Fremont.
“Growing up, my father was a volunteer firefighter, so I guess it just kind of rubbed off on me and I saw his commitment to the community,” he said. “I think volunteering in anything is kind of a thing that most people are attracted to, to give back to help out the community. There’s a sense of pride to help each other out.”
Wagner and Nielsen started for similar reasons. Wagner, a firefighter and paramedic for the Fremont Fire Department and chief of the Hooper Volunteer Fire Department, also has deep family roots in firefighting.
“It’s always been kind of a family thing so I started when I was 18,” he said. “My dad has been a volunteer at Hooper for 35 years; my sister has been an EMS captain there for 15 to 20 years, and I just kind of wanted to help out.”
Nielsen, the chief of the Fremont Rural Fire Department, also started when he was 18 and has been a volunteer for 26 years.
“I’ve grown up in the fire service,” he said. “My dad was a member down there and then he was also a member of Fremont Fire Department. Both my grandpa’s were in the volunteer fire department as well, and I guess it’s in the genes.”
But some are recruited to join, like Deb Von Seggern, an EMS captain, physician therapist and paramedic for the North Bend Volunteer Fire Department.
“We recruit through social media, mass mailings and word of mouth,” she said. “A lot of times it’s just identifying people within the community that we thought would be good. That’s how I joined.”
Recruitment wise, volunteers have to be at least 18 years old and live within the district of their department.
“We’ve even had members join after like they’ve had a medical emergency at their house or their family member had been in a fire and they just see it and ask about it,” Christensen said.
Volunteering isn’t just firefighting and medical calls. Von Seggern said it’s a balancing act between volunteering, having a full-time job and family.
Von Seggern works as an EMS and trauma program coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center as well as an EMS instructor, and Nielsen works full time at SAP Brothers Petroleum. Christensen works as an EMS and fire instructor and Wagner works part time at Coates Gutters.
“You have to be extremely organized and require minimal sleep,” Von Seggern said. “It’s not unusual for any of us to put in 80 to 100 hours a week.”
Wagner said the family built within the fire department makes the balancing act easier.
“People wonder why I do what I get paid for, for free, but it’s hard especially being the chief on top of it,” he said. “So it’s a little time consuming, but I got a good group of guys I have around me that I can lean on. Everybody takes a little bit of the burden so that makes it a little easier.”
Wagner said most times volunteers are helping someone they know because they are working in a small town.
“I would say 75% of our calls are people that we know or somebody on scene knows that person,” he said. “It’s a small town; everybody knows you.”
When asked what keeps them volunteering year after year, all four had the same answer. They love what they do.
“It’s been a great career both volunteer and as a job,” Christensen said. “To me, it’s almost like the little kid inside you because I get to play with big trucks and work with big equipment. I get to do some destruction and fighting fire is almost like a challenge, like a team sport. It’s a huge challenge, and it’s kind of an adrenaline rush.”