The Theodore/Dawes Volunteer Fire Department is trying to recruit new volunteers to keep their community safe.
Last year, the community voted to increase the funding of the fire department, which sees the highest call volume of any volunteer fire department in the area. When compared with paid departments, it is still within the top five, the department’s deputy chief Jeremy Lewis said.
“You go through the same stress, we just get to do it for free,” Lewis said.
Volunteers in the department still work their regular day jobs, leaving to respond when they are needed. Lewis said as work environments become busier and less lenient, it’s harder to attract volunteers.
“They give up a lot of their time to serve their community,” he said.
Though volunteers aren’t paid anything besides fuel reimbursements, there are a few paid firefighters who operate strictly as drivers during the day, alleviating some of the pressure from those working full time.
Volunteers are not required to have any prerequisite training to apply, though they are held to a high standard after joining. In their first year, volunteers in the department undergo 240 hours of training to ensure they perform their tasks safely.
“It’s a tough balance on our end as administrators to understand that these are volunteers and they have a family life and a work life outside of this,” Lewis said. “With today’s environment and the community’s expectations of us to perform, we’ve got to do our due diligence to be sure that our volunteers or paid guys are up to the standard that they expect.”
In 2020, the department had a total of 4346 calls. The large majority of those calls were EMS-related. As a result, the department also needs volunteers who aren’t interested in firefighting at all.
“You can show up on scene and help on rehab and stuff like that,” Lewis said. “So we tried to be open in a lot of areas because there’s a lot of areas we can plug people in as volunteers to help us serve our community.”
For some in the department, volunteer firefighting has led to full-time work. Lewis said a few firefighters who are now with Mobile Fire-Rescue Department started at Theodore/Dawes as 18- and 19-year-olds.
Though the job can be stressful, Lewis said it’s a rewarding experience. Through the department, he can give back to the community he grew up in and formed him into the person he is today.
“This is the community that I grew up and was raised in and there’s no greater feeling than giving back to the community,” he said.
In a way, Lewis thinks volunteer firefighting is more rewarding than paid firefighting. It feels like you’re only doing it for the right reasons, instead of a check, he said.
“Not taking away nothing from the paid guy, but if you go out there and do something and you’re volunteering to do it, and you’re not getting paid, you’ve got a pretty big heart,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
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