It’s 0905hrs on a Sunday morning.
The career firefighter is sleeping soundly in his favorite recliner, enjoying the freedom to nap indiscriminately on a weekend, but also ready to get to work when the tones drop. He is “living the dream.” You know, that dream, the one you always hear about: Insurance, benefits and steady pay to do something you would probably do for free.
The volunteer firefighter is sleeping equally soundly, enjoying the freedom to stay in bed on a weekend, children permitting. Just like our career firefighter, he is ready to go to work when the tones drop. He is exhausted after working overtime Monday through Friday, but he knows when he wakes up he will get to spend irreplaceable time with his family in the comfort of his own home.
What’s the difference?
There are differences, I can assure you of that. These differences, however, are not as glaring as the Facebook Fire Department would have you believe, and the positives and negatives on both sides mostly cancel each other out. In all of the infighting, backbiting and criticisms that often arise between career personnel and volunteers, we constantly forget about another class of firefighter. These men and women make up the oft-ignored third party of the fire service.
Our red-headed stepchildren; The part-time firefighter.
I have been a volunteer, a part-timer and a career firefighter, I am familiar with the struggles of all sides. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the hardest role to fill is that of the part-time firefighter. You can mistakenly be viewed as not as invested as the career guys, not as dedicated as the volunteers. Scab or hired gun are equally unsavory perceptions of your role.
Would you like to know what the part-time firefighter is doing while both the career and volunteer firefighters sleep? Probably commuting to any one of his or her three-plus jobs. Most of them work varying combinations of full-time and part-time positions, both Fire/EMS and otherwise, to make ends meet. How long has it been since their last day off? Who knows. Somewhere between a dog’s age and a really-freaking-long-time. Home? Nah. The part-time firefighter might as well just live in his car, for all the time he gets to spend at his mailing address.
But why be a part-time firefighter at all if it sucks so bad?
- Some don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t have any seriously marketable skills outside of public service. I certainly fit that bill, myself.
- It can be hard getting a career position on a fire department, any number of life choices or events can extinguish your dream.
- Maybe life just got in the way. Sometimes the reality of your situation doesn’t necessarily mesh with your career aspirations. Timing is everything.
- Many are younger individuals, just getting their start. Not everybody walks onto a full-time job after class ends. The experience they are gaining makes them much more desirable volunteer and career employees.
- Lastly, some simply have no interest in pursuing a Fire/EMS career. They probably already have gainful employment in another field and just want to enjoy a living out a childhood dream (while being paid for their time, of course).
Arguments are frequently made that nobody forced them to be part-time firefighters, and that they can give up whenever they want and get a better job. Whatever their reasons, the public service community as a whole needs them more than they need us. Most of these guys and gals can certainly make more money elsewhere, but they chose a life of service instead. For now, at least.
Dragging themselves from department to department, sleep deprived and half-dead, but still ready to go; where I’m from, these are the people that keep both career and volunteer departments afloat.
Volunteer engine response constantly coming up light? It’s understandable. With increasingly demanding schedules, not many people have time to volunteer. Part-timers are here to save the day.
Department making the transition from all-volunteer to combination? Those part-timers are super handy when you need to fill out a schedule.
Need shift coverage for that big fishing trip? PT’s got your back.
If they seem grouchy, it’s probably because they haven’t seen their families for days on end. If they seem unhealthy, it’s likely because they don’t have the luxury of good insurance, or can’t afford to take sick days. Their schedules lead many of them to down energy drinks by the case. If they seem disinterested, I would venture to say that it’s because they work at three or four departments, each with their own sets of training, rules, tempo and drama. Burnout is real.
And finally, if they seem tired, it’s because THEY ARE.
Be thankful that they are here, and be nice to your part-timers.