Did you know that over 70% of firefighters in the United States of America are actually volunteers? Yes, these courageous and selfless individuals give their time and risk their lives on a voluntary basis.
The main incentive for the majority of these volunteers is to give back to their local community in a meaningful way.
However, if you are considering becoming one yourself, you may well wonder if there are any financial benefits to becoming a volunteer firefighter, and whether or not they ever get paid for their services.
Well, the simple answer is, no, volunteer firefighters do not get paid. Yet, as with all things in life, the answer is more complex that it initially seems.
Although they don’t get paid for their work, volunteers in some local fire departments do receive financial compensation for expenses and call outs. Others receive benefits such as pensions, which can be a great incentive for many people.
In this article we will look at what financial benefits there may be to becoming a volunteer in the fire service, as well as what other non-monetary benefits such an undertaking can offer.
We will cover the debate surrounding whether they should be paid or not, and the reasons why they are not paid under the current legal system. So, without further ado, let’s get stuck in!
What Is A Volunteer Firefighter?
According to the dictionary definition, ‘a volunteer is a person who freely agrees to take part in a task or enterprise’, or ‘a person who works for a company or organization without being paid’.
With this in mind, a volunteer firefighter is a member of the public who agrees to help out and contribute to the local fire department without being paid.
Volunteer firefighters can sign up for shifts or be ‘on-call’ as an extra set of hands in the case of emergencies, and they tend to bolster the manpower of a local fire department, particularly in times of need.
They undergo training in certain areas so that they are able to help out and be of assistance to the professionals, however some more complicated and very dangerous duties will be reserved for the professionals alone.
That being said, some fire departments in rural areas and small towns are made up entirely of volunteers, and have no career firefighters whatsoever. In these departments the volunteers have to be very committed as they cannot defer to others in an emergency.
These volunteers tend to be highly trained to professional standards.
Why Are Volunteer Firefighters Not Paid?
Having established that many volunteer firefighters perform the same job as professionals, you may well wonder why it is that they are not paid for their service. It certainly isn’t because they are not hugely appreciated by the local community and authorities.
No, quite the opposite. Volunteers are greatly respected and revered by government and society, and they are often honored with medals, certificates of bravery, dinners and public events. Yet, the one way they are not allowed to be rewarded is with pay.
This is due to the legal rights in existence in the USA surrounding workers, employment and pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act (or FLSA) was introduced into American law in 1938 in order to ensure fair working conditions and a minimum wage for all workers.
It was an incredibly progressive and positive step for American working class society because it meant that no employer could get away with paying workers below the minimum wage, and it also meant that workers get paid extra after they have completed a standard number of working hours (ie, this was the introduction of overtime).
Although the LFSA is a good thing for employees, it does mean that it becomes legally very difficult to pay volunteers anything at all.
If fire departments and local authorities were to pay volunteers an hourly rate, or a yearly salary, they would have to pay them at least the minimum wage, and they would also have to pay them overtime for working anti-social hours or for working longer than the standard 8 hours per day.
This would completely undermine the point of having “volunteers” at all, as it would not save the fire department any money or administrative effort. Therefore, volunteers are not officially paid for their work on an hourly, monthly or yearly basis.
Are There Any Financial Benefits To Being A Volunteer Firefighter?
However, just because they are not paid an official rate or salary, does not mean that volunteer firefighters do not receive any money whatsoever.
Some fire departments pay their volunteers a very small amount per ‘call-out’. This can be as little as $2 per call-out, and is meant to contribute to gas and fuel costs.
Afterall, volunteers will often drive themselves to the scene of an emergency in their own car, having received the call for extra help whilst at home.
Others will be paid to man the station during slow hours, like during the dead of night, and will receive some money to cover their expenses, snacks, drinks and travel costs for example.
Of course, $2 per call-out is hardly a financial incentive, which is why many fire departments also offer pension benefits to their volunteers.
This often proves to be a great incentive for many people to volunteer, especially if they are retired from their old job but haven’t got a large pension to show for it.
Since you can retire at the age of 65 in the USA, many people have time on their hands whilst still being fit and able enough to carry out work. For these retirees, the pension contributions they get through volunteering can be a welcome boost to their own personal pension pot.
The Debate Surrounding Volunteer Firefighters’ Pay
Believe it or not, the debate surrounding whether volunteer firefighters should be paid at all is quite a hot topic in many parts of America.
Some local authorities argue strongly that ‘volunteers should volunteer’, and should therefore not receive any monetary compensation at all.
These authorities cite the funding pressures on fire departments as a key reason for not paying volunteers, and say that giving any kind of ‘call-out fee’ undermines the principle of volunteering at its very core.
However, others argue that volunteer firefighters work just as hard as career firefighters in many parts of the country, and in some places they are the only defense against fire emergencies in the area.
They argue that the level of responsibility, commitment, time and effort given by volunteers deserves greater financial compensation than they currently receive.
For the most part, the feeling on this subject depends on how many professional firefighters there are in attendance, and therefore how great the role of the volunteers is compared to them.
Why Do People Become Volunteer Firefighters?
It may seem unlikely that anyone would want to commit their time and energy to becoming a volunteer firefighter if they have to perform the same job as the professionals and yet do not receive any pay.
However, there are many incentives other than monetary gain that draw people to this calling. These are just a few...
Giving Back To The Community
The majority of those who do volunteer say that their main motivation is to give something back to their local community. There is something very noble and selfless about being a firefighter, and this becomes even more important when you are not being paid for your service.
If you feel like your community has nurtured and protected you and your family, you may well feel inspired to help out as a volunteer.
Learning New Skills
For many people, becoming a volunteer with the fire department is about expanding their skill set, and trying something new. In the same way that others join sports teams or craft clubs, being a firefighting volunteer can be a stimulating and rewarding experience.
Meeting New People
If you have just moved to a new area, or feel you just don’t know many people in your town or city, then joining the fire department can provide you with an instant crew of friends and colleagues.
You can be sure that the other volunteers will be like minded and generous because they too are willing to give up their time for free.
Gaining Work Experience
For young professionals, students and graduates, volunteering at the local fire department can be a great point of interest to add to your resume, and can really improve your chances to impress in job and college interviews.
Even if you are pursuing a career that has nothing to do with firefighting, the fact that you volunteer demonstrates many awesome transferable skills that employers and faculty heads value highly.
Fitness And Activity
Being a volunteer firefighter can be very physically demanding, depending on how much you become involved. For many, physical exercise is strengthening and helps with stamina in much the same way that a gym session or sports match does for others.
A Change From The Day Job
For many volunteer firefighters, the benefits lie in the diversion that volunteering provides.
If you have a desk job, or a job that you are not passionate about, then volunteering at a local fire station can provide mental, physical and emotional stimulation and can give people a great sense of self worth.
How Do Volunteer Firefighters Make Money If They Don’t Get Paid?
Just because volunteer firefighters aren’t paid for their services, it does not mean that they are destitute. Far from it. Volunteer Firefighters are ‘volunteers’ in their spare time, meaning most of them have jobs and careers in other areas through which they pay the bills.
Anyone can volunteer as a firefighter, so there is a great array of different people who sign up. Some are shop keepers, others fishermen, others actors, carpenters, postmen or bankers. You name it!
Many of the volunteers are also retired and that is how they have the time to spend at the fire station. Some are even retired professional firefighters who have given up their full time work and now continue to offer their expertise and skills on a voluntary basis.
There really is room for anyone, which is what makes the volunteers across the country such a vibrant and essential asset to American life.