|This building in our town was consumed by flames last month|
I didn't realise before moving to the US that many town fire departments are completley staffed by volunteers - including that of the town in which I live. You would think that a town 20 miles from New York City would have an official fire department, but we don't. And it's not as if we don't have any fires. The scream of the town fire sirens is an almost daily occurrence here; when I first moved here I couldn't understand how anyone put up with it, as the noise is incredibly loud, like an air-raid siren, particularly if you happen to live near a fire station. But people do, because of the respect afforded to the fire department, and also because houses seem to burn to the ground here within hours.
Most houses are made of wood in New England, and many buildings too. Since living here I personally know of at least two families who have had their house burn down, and recently we had the most dramatic fire of all - a historic building on Main Street was consumed by flames, luckily not killing anyone but leaving many families homeless and three businesses displaced. The flames were so huge that at one point the whole town smelled of smoke; it was the lead item on that night's local New York news.
The firefighters who go to fight these fires all, with a few exceptions, have other jobs. They do "shifts" at the firehouse. However, fires here are ranked in terms of "alarms" to describe how serious they are. If it's a "three alarm fire", my understanding is that all available volunteer firefighters have to drop what they are doing and get to it. They're not paid, but they go into burning buildings and save lives.
And that's not all; after Hurricane Irene, when the tree destroyed the roof of our rented house, it was the fire department who were responsible for going into the house and checking it, at great danger to themselves. The fire marshal (who I got to know rather well over the course of that week) looked exhausted as he ran around town dealing with tree damage and fires that occurred when the power came back on; one day he confessed he had had no sleep, and he had bandages on his hands which had got singed in a fire.
I asked an acquaintance recently why these people do it, when they don't get paid. Is it pure altruism, the need for adrenalin or perhaps some urge to feel like a hero, I asked? He replied that some do it for benefits. Although they are unpaid, apparently the firefighters do receive some perks such as health insurance and the like. He also said he guessed that the "fire houses" were "fun" places to hang out, with free drinks and socialising (I wonder if some Dads of young kids find it a welcome escape from home?)
Whatever the reason, I do think it's pretty amazing that these people do this job. It also seems to me to epitomise something about America. Yes, it's a very capitalistic society and money sometimes seems the sole motivator. But there is also a strong ethic of volunteerism and "giving back" in many communities. So when I hear the wail of the siren now at 6am, I, too, think of the volunteer firefighters and all that they represent.