Volunteer Firefighters Dedicated, Face Challenges - News and Weather For The Quad Cities -

Volunteer Firefighters Dedicated, Face Challenges

Updated: March 6, 2013 10:34 PM CST

They run into burning buildings, get trapped drivers out of cars, and are the first to respond to medical emergencies, no matter what time of the day or night. Many times the firefighters you see working in our communities are volunteers, doing it for nothing but the satisfaction of giving back. At the same time, they face challenges paid firefighters never encounter.

"You dial 911 and it's probably the worst day of your life," volunteer firefighter Joe Collins tells us. And its something every first responder knows. It's something they all train for. But when it's real, volunteers face challenges on top of flames or cold. Starting with personnel. "In there with a paid department, you know you have people coming, you know you have apparatus coming," says Chief Tyler Schmidt. "Here, there could be one or two guys that show up to a house fire and you have to rely on mutual aid."

In any scenario, the Scott Emergency Communications Center pages and volunteers get a text. Whether they can respond just depends. Assistant Chief Dave Engler says, "That's the way it works. If you're available, you come. If you're not, you don't." And while he may be second in command at Eldridge Fire, Engler has to clear it with the boss at his day job before he heads toward home. He says he hasn't had to ask for that often. And he says it has never been a problem.

Not everyone can take every call. But everyone here has missed work, a family meal or a good night's sleep. Collins says, "My wife is a saint. She puts up with it, coming home and taking off my clothes on the front porch 'cuz they all smell like smoke and stuff like that." Every volunteer with the department showed up at Del's at some point during the day, whether to fight the fire or clear and clean equipment after. "It goes to show the dedication of the people we do have, how willing they are to help the community," Chief Schmidt says.

But in a smaller community, it's more likely a firefighter will know the family he or she is helping, or who has lost a loved one. Schmidt says, "No matter who it is, it's gonna be hard on everybody. It's a little more difficult when you know people." Collins adds, "Some days you can really make a difference. Some days you just do the best you can and hope for the best."

They do that in Eldridge with 470 calls last year alone, handled by a roster of 25. The chief says that's enough, but tells us there is enough work for more. And there is a need at departments across the QCA. The latest figures from the National Fire Protection Association show volunteer numbers are the lowest they've been in two decades. But in Eldridge, they are holding strong. Those on job tell us they'll continue to be. Drew Liske says, "I plan to. I definitely plan to. I mean this is where I started. This is where I plan to stay."

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