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Taking the Heat
On a 100-degree summer day with 80 percent humidity, painters set to work removing old layers of paint from a big old house on the water in Darien, Conn., as part of a renovation. The job was made more difficult because of several layers of roofing. The combination of the heat from the stripping gun and the weather started a fire that burned for eight hours and destroyed everything, including an attic full of antiques, despite the heroic efforts of firefighters including Steve Palmer and Scott Barker. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Neither Palmer nor Barker has ever helped get a cat out of a tree. But these volunteer firefighting veterans have repeatedly battled one of the most destructive forces in nature.
The fire department in Darien, Conn., handles 10 to 15 structure fires each year, including brush fires, house fires, and store fires. In addition, the team responds to about 600 calls per year to provide any emergency service not handled by the police. This includes car accidents with injuries, rollovers (which can create hazards because of spilled fluids), and accidents involving tankers. Each year the team extricates 15 to 20 people from cars.
About half of the calls are false alarms, including blunders with home alarm systems.
Keeping their day jobs
Between emergencies, the 50 active members of the department don't stand around waiting in their fire gear. Like most smaller departments, the Darien fire department is volunteer, so they've all got day jobs. Palmer owns his own business in computer networking/consulting for small businesses. This allows him to be available for calls from the fire department as much as possible. He spends about half of his time at each job.
Barker works nights as a respiratory therapist, which complements the schedules of the other firefighters. Other members of the staff are electricians, plumbers, and custodians. A few professional firefighters from nearby towns are stand-in members.
Seven to ten staff are on hand for each routine call. In extreme situations, the entire staff can be paged. Most firefighters can get away from their jobs in an emergency.
Recent regulation requires active firefighters to be at least 18 years old and to go through proper training. Barker, 25, walked into the local department on his 18th birthday and filled out an application.
Volunteer status suits Barker fine, given the hazards. "Being a full-time firefighter becomes extremely dangerous, not because the duties are more challenging as a professional, but because they are just doing them more," he said.
Palmer, who started his firefighting career 16 years ago when he was in high school, is also happy to be a volunteer. "I wanted to preserve the enjoyment of it," he said. "The fact that it wasn't work made it more appealing. Besides, you've got no chance of getting wealthy as a firefighter."
Professional firefighters working full time earn $34,000 per year on average, with only a slight opportunity for growth. Palmer estimates that he volunteers about 15 to 20 hours a week.
Weekly training at the drill tower
Training for firefighting is a continuous process. The Darien department offers basic firefighting training, which includes preparing for motor vehicle accidents, basic first aid, and CPR. The volunteers gather once a week to practice in the drill tower in sessions sometimes led by the professionals. There the volunteers rehearse the skills of placing ladders, handling hoses, extricating victims, repelling, and other drills.
In one grueling exercise, the team puts 25 gallons of flammable fuel in a pit and lights it on fire. Barker said that, in addition to the immense heat, this type of fire is difficult to combat because water would only push the flames away, and the fire would engulf anyone who got too close. Firefighters have been injured in such drills.
The department pays for accelerated training as encouragement to volunteers to continue beyond the basics. State schools generally offer training at national standards, with certification potential for Firefighter I through III, Fire Officer, and Fire Instructor. Such training programs are often stepping-stones for the younger volunteers who want to move on to professional status.
A firefighter's unofficial training involves learning to dehumanize emergencies. This lesson has helped Palmer cope with heartbreaking scenarios, including a car-garage suicide attempt that was brutally accelerated by an oil fire. Barker said the team handles a few fatalities every year.
So if you can keep your cool in emergencies, think about volunteer firefighting...and dream on!