Thursday, July 12, 2007

An upcoming column

By Michael Althouse
The Colfax Record

When I first started working at the Colfax Record, just a little more than a year ago, the paper was still at its long-time home on Church Street. It wasn’t even a stone’s throw away from the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department.

At the time, I was still very new to Colfax and didn’t realize what the administrative differences were between the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now CAL FIRE) and the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department.

Yes, I saw the word “volunteer,” but I didn’t really think that it meant they were volunteers. I figured the moniker was simply a throwback, a quaint relic of a time gone by and perfectly fitting for an old, small mountain town.

But I didn’t really think they were volunteers.

They all looked like the real deal. They had the clothes, the boots, the apparatus… the fire engine. No, they weren’t really volunteers, were they?

Um, ya.

As in they don’t get paid.

Not for waking up in the middle of the night for a call.

Not for the 15 to 20 average hours per week of responding to calls, training and maintaining equipment.

Not for leaving their families on a moment’s notice - sometimes for days at a time.

Not for risking their lives.

Not for saving yours.

Not for any of it.

And for all that, they must train just like their compensated counterparts. It’s not simply a matter of signing on the dotted line. There are hours and hours of initial training followed by more hours of training just to stay current.

In every respect except one, they are the real deal. They just don’t take home a check.

Colfax CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Chris Paulus approached me last month about writing a story on the volunteer firefighters.

He told me of the newest volunteers and of the professionalism that each member represents and of the sacrifices they make. He was (and is) still new to his positions as both Colfax CAL FIRE battalion chief and as Colfax Volunteer Fire Department chief. I could tell he had genuine admiration for the volunteer crew he inherited.

Although I did write that story, I told him that would be a good topic for a column. I explained that in a column, I get to say what I think - and I think Paulus is right.

Paulus feels strongly about his firefighters. He must - he took time away from fighting the 20,000-acre plus Antelope Complex Fire in the Plumas National Forest to return a call to me just to talk about these local heroes.

“They were the only ones working for free during the Independence Day celebration in Colfax,” he said. “All of the other police and fire personnel were getting paid and these volunteers left their families on a family holiday to help their community.”

Timothy Keyes has a regular job. He is a firefighter with the Sacramento City Fire Department. He is also a volunteer firefighter in Colfax.

“In Colfax, there is more work per person,” he said. “In Sac City, if there is a fire of any kind, there are instantly 30 people on it.”

“In Colfax, you have to do the same with fewer people, knowing that help might be more than just a few minutes away.”

Chris Toepfer, a five year veteran of the Colfax Volunteer Fire Department, echoes Keyes sentiments.

“It’s critical on the initial attack to get someone there to knock the fire down,” he said. “And we know it might be a while before we get any help.”

The Placer Hills Fire Protection District, just down the hill from Colfax, has a mix of paid firefighters and volunteers. Fire Chief Ian Gow relies heavily on the volunteers.

“Volunteers have the same training requirements as professional firefighters,” Gow said. “We couldn’t function without the volunteers.”

11 comments:

Carmi said...

Beautifully put, Mike. I've always been in awe of those who sacrifice so much and who willingly do it all gratis. It speaks volumes about the character of these individuals, and the quality of a society that continues to both encourage and benefit from the selflessness exhibited by this tradition.

Amazing stuff, all captured in your words.

Michele might very well make this her next post of the week, too!

Michele said...

Carmi is not only bright and eloquent but he often makes me smile.

Hmm....

This truly is a wonderful piece. Earlier today I was reading an article titled "Firefighters fry flapjacks," it was very well written although done in a reporting style (as it was meant to be) rather than allowing the writer's opinions and voice to shine. When the writer is you it tends to shine a bit brighter. This is a wonderful tribute. Thank you for sharing it with us!

mckay said...

volunteer fire fighters reminds me of the movie Roxanne. i'm sure your guys are of a much higher and less comedic caliber.

Bernie said...

Here in NSW (Australia) we have the Volunteer Bush Fire (Rural Fire Service http://www.bushfire.nsw.gov.au/) and they do a FANTASTIC job. We have even had the US friends come over in some of our bigger bushfires.

They are a wonderful bunch and they can not be praised enough for the tireless hours they put in. The only thing we have for them here however, is that the State Government has an agreement with the employees network, that if, for the purposes of being on duty, that the Volunteer will not be at a loss financially nor shall they be in jepordy of losing their job, which I think is great! They may not get paid, but the Government makes sure they do not miss out!

Here from Michele's this afternoon...

Great tribute to them!

PI said...

They are truly noble men as are volunteer life boat men. Not only are they giving up precious time for the community, they are also risking their lives. Hooray for such men and - possibly - women?
Michele has already been and she sent me also.

Awareness said...

Hi Mike...

It's incredible actually how many people volunteer in this capacity when they could choose to give of their time in to something less dangerous.... if it weren't for the volunteers, especially in the rural areas in and around my city, there wouldn't be anyone to fight fires.

Great post............

enjoy your weekend. :)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A well written post. Volunteers are so essential.

Michele sent me.

R. Sherman said...

Not here via Michele although I became acquainted with you through her.

Nicely said.

I live in a place where we only recently voted to incorporate our volunteer fire department into a fire protection district.

You're right.

They're good people.

Cheers.

kenju said...

I think many US fire depts. can say the same; that they couldn't function without volunteers. We have volunteer fire depts. all over our county. It is amazing to me how much time they put in training and waiting - and they don't get paid for any of it.
Michele sent me tonight.

BreadBox said...

Hello, Michele sent me!
(commenting up the line, since I managed to get the cheap joke in at the meet and greet --- how nice that there were exactly 5 posts since my last one on it, and there was Michele:-)

I have a huge amount of respect for our local firefighters, especially in our little town, where they are all volunteer. A couple of months ago they had their open day, and it was wonderful the way that they interacted with the little ones, at the same time trying to get some important life lessons across, re fire and other safety.
Good people.

N.

BreadBox said...

Hello again: Michele sent me *again*!
Anyone got any thoughts on how to organize a small town thankyou to the vfd?

N.