Confessions of a Volunteer Firefighter
The Things You Don't See
My one desire has always been to help people. It's instilled into my lifestyle. I have no problems with literally taking the shirt off of my back to help a fellow person. It's as if it was my purpose in life. To help someone; heal someone; and if the need arises... rescue someone. So I joined the county fire department.
The thing about the fire department I work at is that it's all volunteer. To any other paid department, it may seem like we don't do much at all except clean up afterwards. In my town, it's different. Here, it's not just your normal, worn down, one truck volunteer department. Here, it's the only fire departments my town has.
My town is small. So small that it only has one traffic intersection. To the average Joe, it would seem like nothing happens at all around here, like a real life Mayberry. Due to that, the city fire department shut down, and the town solely relied on the county fire department, where I volunteer at.
It's a huge station. Not as well built on the inside as a city fire department, but we have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of emergency vehicles, equipment, and bunker gear. Enough for quite a few people, if need be. Only problem is that the fire department runs on a 20k annual budget, so it does not have enough to employ paid firemen.
The closest paid fire department is roughly 30 miles away in another county. We can't rely on them to come into our jurisdiction every time we have a house fire or a wreck. Because of that, it's up to us volunteers to pick up the slack. We got our training, and we got our credentials, and we got our own radios for dispatch to contact us with. Although all of this is not enough to work at a paid department, its enough to get the job done.
Before I joined the fire department, I worked at a gas station. I'm currently the assistant manager at this gas station. I have to have some form of income because I don't get paid to work on the fire department, not that it matters to me, since I do it because I love it, and I want to make a career out of it one day.
So now you know that I work at a gas station as well as on the fire department. You also know that this fire department is one of many in the country where the volunteer firefighters have to put themselves in the same position as a paid firefighter due to availability. You also know that it seems as if nothing would ever happen in such a small town. But what about the things the population does not see?
Let me go off topic for a moment and tell you a little about an average day at the gas station where I work at. During the early mornings of 4 a.m., I usually come in to get the store ready to open at 5. I count money to make sure everything is in order, and I pull daily reports to send to send to Corporate. There comes a time where the early birds of the town or passerbys try to come in under the assumption that it's a 24 hour store, which it's not. They'll get agitated and huff and puff, but they eventually leave.
Fast forward to a half hour after opening, we get our first load of customers, which consist of people that work at the chicken houses, pinestraw fields, and the prison. There's an old saying, "When it rains, it pours"; that saying is all too true for the next 3 hours. After they get done, then school teachers and students follow afterwards, along with truckers, other people heading to work, and then some.
After it dies down a little bit, I'm able to clean up, stock, and whatever other chore my boss finds for me. Unfortunately, it never lasts long, because it stays steady. By the time you go to do something, a customer comes up to the front counter. And I cannot leave my post until they are done with their shopping. We get occasional customers that can't make up their mind, keeping me at bay. It stays so steady that I could get things done, but at the same time not be able to move because a customer immediately shows up to the counter on perfect timing, as if they knew I was about to leave my post.
During lunch time, everyone on break comes in to grab a bite to eat, as we have a small fast food chain connected to the store. We get people that come in getting beer around this time, scratch off tickets at this time, and tobacco at this time as well, so needless to say, it gets pretty busy. We'll have an occasional person that comes up to the counter with a thing of cooked chicken and candy and chips, wanting to pay with e.b.t., in which case not only do our policy doesn't allow us to sell hot foods on ebt, and our computers won't allow us to split pay, as we would have to take off tax for everything. Because of this, we have to perform 2 separate transactions.
Fast forward to the end of my shift, when another employee takes over. Our process includes puling mid day reports on the ebt machine, lottery machine, western union machine, and phone card machine, as well as close one of our only 2 registers, and count our lottery books. Once the second register is closed, it cannot be reopened until our shift change is done. After reports have been pulled, and after we counted lottery books, we cannot sell any lottery, money orders, or phone cards, accept ebt, or send money until after shift change. If someone buys gas during this process, everything is paused until he or she finish pumping, as we cannot close a register that someone bought gas on. This process drives antsy and inpatient customers mad because we are expected to serve them the second they step up to the counter. Luckily we found quicker methods to get the second shift employee to open their register, but we still can't sell any items on machines we pulled reports on until after a full shift change has occurred. The second shift people would go through the same process until closing time at 11 p.m., but at least they can shut off pumps and lock the doors.
There a lot of things customers do not understand. For instance, why we can't split pay when you pay for gas or ebt; why we can't sell lottery and money orders, or perform Western Union on a debit or credit card; why we can only send money via Western Union, but can't receive money; why we can't sell alcohol on Sunday; why the kitchen has to throw away food that never got sold after closing time, when it could be given to the needy (people mainly use this excuse because they want free food.) Due to all the confusion, we get a lot of complaints, which hold up a long line of impatient customers, hence the saying "misery loves company."
This is not the only thing that gives me a hard time. A lot of my problems in customer service comes from alcoholics, drug addicts, lottery addicts, and simply people that come in to start drama in general. Don't get me wrong, I fancy a glass of whiskey and a beer every once in a while myself, but its either in the comfort of my own home or with a group of responsible drinkers. What I get in my workplace, however, are the irresponsible drinkers that think they have to start a tussle because I supposedly looked at them the wrong way or said the wrong thing to them; the people that look underage and give me a fit because they are not in possession of identification. The ones that cuss me out because I can't sell them alcohol on Sunday (I had a death threat one time over such nonsense, but it was many many months ago, and the guy turned out to be all talk).
For those addicted to lottery, I get people that hold up a line because they want to use the counter to scratch their ticket. I get people that pitch a fit because they're not my number 1 priority when I'm taking care of someone else at the same time. I get people that are so stingy with their money that they bring in roughly between 10-50 dollars worth of coins and expect us to count it by hand so they can buy tickets with it, regardless of who all may be behind them.
For those addicted to drugs, and the ones coming up with the only intention to stir up the pot, I get people that pitch a fit because I don't have the right cigarillos they want. I get people that bought cigarettes from another store, but want to exchange them at the store I work at. I get people that don't shop at all, but verbally insult me and cuss me out simply because they know I can't do anything about it without risking my job. In any normal environment, I would have the legal right to refuse service, but my boss does not believe in that right.
This happens all the time at the gas store I work at. I deal with the verbal abuse from customers. I deal with the possibility of pulling a double because someone does not want to come to work. I deal with the possibility of getting called in to work for the same reason. I have no set schedule. I don't get lunch breaks because our store only has 1 cashier in the morning time; since I'm that cashier when I don't manage the store on weekends, I eat on the job. There are a lot of times when it's so busy that day that I don't eat at all. The only time I get to relax is when the store is vacant and I've performed all my tasks, but that's a rarity, since I stop to tend to customers while taking care of everything else, and I can't finish everything in my shift alone. Other than that, the only time I relax is when I'm home, hoping I don't get called in.
Now that I have gave you the scoop on what happens inside my job, allow me to tell you what I do on the fire department. Every Monday afternoon, I meet up with everyone else on the department, and we all train to stay vigilant. We also upkeep the station, run the trucks to make sure they are in working order, switch out our radio batteries if need be, maintain our equipment, and we exercise. We usually stay up there until close to 10 at night. On Wednesdays, we meet up at the county's Emergency Operations Center to run First Response scenarios, in case we go on an emergency call that is non fire related. We do this because we act as not only firemen, but as backup for EMS. Some scenarios are easy, and some quite comical. Other scenarios are difficult, such as responding to an unconscious infant, or giving CPR to someone that has been unresponsive for a while. This is our weekly routine, and we do this to keep ourselves on our toes, should the need arise.
Although we keep this routine going, you can never be prepared enough something real happens. When there's an emergency, I get a call on my radio. If I'm currently able to respond, I head to the station, suit up, and go where I need to. The majority of calls we get are LZs, which means we oversee a life light, making sure air medics land safely and take off safely, or if the patient is in too critical of condition to fly, ride with EMS to the hospital and assist in providing immediate care; Brush Fires, which are small forest fires we assist Forestry in containing before it gets out of control; and Backup EMS, which is exactly what I spoke of earlier.
Although this is normally what we get, there are occasions where we get something more serious, such as car fires or house fires. With these fires, we not only suit up, but we also pack out in our air tanks, then get to work. We respond in teams of two, so that in case one of us falls, the other guy can get us out. With these fires, hours of time is consumed, and a lot can take in effect. Not only do you have the heat from the flames burning any revealing body part, but you also have the heat humidity from the weather, as well as your own body heat from wearing the fire retardant gear, all cooking you like a baked potato.
When it's not a fire we respond to, it's a vehicle wreck. In a wreck, you see people physically vulnerable, and in some rare cases, you see a corpse or body parts instead. This is mentally the most difficult to respond to, because since I live in a small town, where everyone practically knows each other, it's a good chance that I may see one of my friends or family involved, which I have before. It's not easy, and it damn well isn't for the faint of heart.
Now that you know what I do outside of my workplace as well, allow me to make a confession. As great as this has been, it has also been very exhausting as well as depressing. It has been exhausting because I wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning every time I get a morning shift, and if I work on afternoon shifts, I work until 11 p.m. at night. Since I have no set schedule, and I can be called in at any time, I rarely get good sleep. This affects me on a call because I could be called in to go on an emergency any time I'm off the clock, going to a call that could last anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours. Since I can get an emergency call at all hours of the night or day, likewise, my work performance is also affected, since I could be called into work at any time the store is opened.
As for the emotional toil it has given me, imagine being a fireman. Imagine going to a call that has a good chance of being your last call ever. Imagine going to a scene and putting not only your life on the line, but your partner's life on the line as well, since you both push onward together. Imagine the anguish, fear, and torment you have to fight past, all to save someone you don't know. You have been beaten up physically and mentally. Now imagine going to your job afterwards, only to be verbally abused and slandered by the same kind of people you risked your own wellbeing for.
This is what I deal with as a gas station employee and as a firefighter. With both of those conflicting each other, there were often times that I questioned everything. I began to ask myself, "Am I really putting my life on the line for this? Why do I even gear up? Is this worth it?" There is so much I want to say and reveal to those people that keep slandering me, but H.I.P.A.A. law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prevents me from doing doing that. I'm stuck with being a man in a mask, with only few knowing my secret identity.
But even with all of those trials, physical and mental, I'm reminded that there are some people that still care. Even beyond that, I still have those other guys at the fire department backing me up as I back them up. We have been through hell and back, quite literally, I may add. We became brothers, forged in fire. That alone keeps me in check on why I do what I do. I have put my resignation notice in at that gas store, and I got accepted at a more suitable job, with more stable hours and more acceptance of someone like me, who gears up and packs out on my off time. I'm preparing to work myself up so I can make firefighting my career.