Over Shabbat, I enjoyed reading Nina Glick’s article “When You Hear the Siren” (May 5. 2022), her heartfelt appreciation of the local volunteer ambulance corps. She asked, “How does one properly thank them?” As I live in Highland Park, am a fire chief and emergency medical technician (EMT), and have an interesting perspective, I can offer many suggestions on how to help and thank volunteer first responders.
1. Volunteer yourself: The average volunteer stays a volunteer for three years. Many life situations deter volunteer members of fire departments and first aid squads, let it be college, jobs, relationships, etc. The No. 1 targeted age group for new volunteers should be young married couples owning a house in town with a child in elementary school. If the spouse permits, that volunteer organization might have a new active member for two to three decades!
Now volunteering for a fire department or first aid squad can not be compared to other volunteer opportunities. We are blessed today to have many avenues to volunteer and give back to society. However, I don’t know of many other opportunities where at 3 in the morning, I get woken up by a pager to deal with a motor vehicle accident or get a call for an apartment fire. I have left my family at a hotel 20 minutes away (we were “vacationing”) for 10 hours to help out my community. I call first responding volunteering “hard core volunteering,” as there is no way to compare it to being a Girl Scout leader (which I also do), soccer coach, or the president of the PTO. First responder volunteering is truly a full-time activity.
Don’t want to be a firefighter or EMT? Drive the ambulance for me. Most squads are short on mature/experienced members who have the knowledge to drive an ambulance. Many duty crews depend on whether or not we can find a driver. Failing to do so cancels the crew. The main job of EMTs is to pick up a patient and safely bring them to the hospital. Every squad needs volunteers.
Ever wanted to kick your spouse out for six hours and have cave time? Send them out with their chavrusa to the squad to learn till midnight.
2. Offer non-active-duty services to the department/squad. Every volunteer department has needs for fundraisers, grant writers (if you know of one, please tell me), secretaries, accountants, maintenance people, electricians and plumbers. Less than 10% of the time a firefighter is on duty is spent on calls. There is a lot of administrative, clerical and janitorial work that gets done. Firefighters and EMTs are not always the most qualified in other duties and end up wearing multiple hats in a volunteer organization. Help is always needed.
3. Be happy when you see the crew at Dunkin’ or anywhere else NOT on the call. This means that everyone is at home and safe. Even though I am at my squad or firehouse for crews, ready to help the community when someone is having their worst day of their life, I would rather have no calls. This means no one is hurt.
4. If you hear a smoke/carbon monoxide detector going off, call 911. I would rather go to 99 calls that are nonsense calls and go to the real call in a timely manner than not get called. If you see a fire, call 911. Don’t think that someone else did already. We have had calls where we circled four blocks away for “smoke conditions” trying to find the fire while no one who was watching the fire actually called 911.
5. Donate dinner or refreshments once a month. Almost every volunteer department or squad has monthly meetings. It is especially appreciated when a group donates food or refreshments after their monthly meetings. People remember the organizations in December and send cookies. However, random months (any from January through November) are appreciated.
6. Buy cases of water and snacks for the firehouse/squad. We go through tons of water for training, fire calls, etc. When the storms get bad, it’s not the best time to go out and buy food. Having snacks dropped off for the “rainy day” is always appreciated.
7. When a major fire is happening on your block, tell rehab (station where firefighters go after being in the fire to check vitals and rest for five seconds) that the firefighters are to use your house for the bathroom. You don’t understand how important this is. When we get calls, we can be out there for eight-plus hours with nowhere to go. We don’t have the ability to bring in toilets for calls.
8. Don’t just offer but physically bring out refreshments on major incidents. When people do this at fires, we truly appreciate it. I still remember going on mutual aid to a townhouse fire in Metuchen. At 3 a.m., the mayor of Metuchen was handing out coffee and donuts to all the firefighters, thanking them for saving his town. It doesn’t take much effort, but we do remember it.
9. Ask the volunteer department/squad to honor a member every year. Many schools/yeshivas/shuls honor multiple members of the community. Overlooked are lifetime members of these groups who pour their soul, time and money into their community. Noting the individual’s accomplishments doesn’t only support them but the department, too. Here in Highland Park, the Knights of Columbus regularly recognize the police, fire and emergency medical services.
10. Donate to or sponsor a “training” to the squad/firehouse. To stay in compliance, many trainings need to be done yearly or bi-yearly. Sometimes, this comes out of membership money. By sponsoring a training, that department can also invite other departments to participate.
11. Request the town to increase funding. Recently, the state has increased the maximum donation they can offer to first aid squads. As such, the towns need to then increase the amount into their budget.
12. If you can vote for the fire district’s budget, do so. In district departments, all budgets need to be voted on by the public. If they don’t pass, there is no training, purchasing of gear, etc., until the review goes through the town and state and gets cut. Having a volunteer fire department saves the town approximately $4 million in salaries a year. The commissioners who propose the budget usually know what they are doing. You don’t want the department to not have the ability to fight fires.
13. Advocate for LOSAP (length of service award program) increases. This is a small “nest egg” donation towns give first responder members who are doing their requirements as a volunteer. The volunteer gets the money invested and can pull out the money when they retire. This helps out on retention of the membership. Because of the way the resolutions are written, many of the yearly increases of LOSAP donations (due to inflation) never happen and the members are receiving the same amount as members over 20 years ago received.
14. Inquire and purchase basic equipment for the department. Find out what accessory equipment the department needs. Very often, major required equipment is purchased for the department (fire engines, ambulances, self-contained breathing apparatus packs, etc.) However, many smaller tools and clothing need to be purchased by the members from their own pockets (work pants, boots, etc.) Donations of specific items for the department are always nice. The stethoscope, shears and other equipment new members need to purchase for EMS does get costly and most 16+ year old members don’t have a good income.
15. Thank the volunteers’ spouses. I can only do everything I do for the community due to my wonderfully understanding wife and children. I can’t tell you how many good-night hugs I have missed from my children because of training, a meeting or fire calls. When I show up to kids’ birthday parties with a fire engine, I tell them to thank my wife for allowing me out of the house on Sunday to do so. Behind every married volunteer is a spouse that is left home with the kids while the volunteer helps out someone who might be having the worst day in their life.Michael “Mordechai” Gershen
Fire Chief, Highland Park Fire Department