Volunteer Fire/EMS: Taking the High Road and Letting go

My father helped people. Not only was he the 20 year volunteer Fire Chief of the small town we grew up in and a 30 year volunteer firefighter, he also owned the country hardware store and provided the tools and equipment needed to keep all of the farmers in the area up and running. He was always on-duty for both jobs. It was a commonplace occurrence for our phone to ring anytime the store was closed with someone on the other end asking for something that they absolutely needed right then. He’d invariably go over and meet them to get them what they needed. He’d also be happy to go out and fix things for people when they needed it and couldn’t quite do it themselves. It’s what having a country hardware store was all about, I learned from him. People needed help, and we helped them.

That’s not all. We lived in Northern Illinois about 2hrs from where I live now. Every time it snowed my father, brother, and I were up before the sun helping to clear the storefronts of snow. After we did that, we’d plow the fire station so the trucks could get out. If it was Sunday, we’d meet other people at the church and get the sidewalks and the parking lot clear before the service. Then, we’d make sure and plow the driveways and shovel the sidewalks of the elderly and infirm in the town. It wasn’t a big town, just a few hundred people, so we knew who needed our help and who could do it themselves. We’d usually be able to make it to school on time, but the school teachers knew what we were doing and were happy to excuse a late arrival. The town was small, interconnected, and friendly. We all helped each other out and could depend on our neighbors. That’s just the way it was.

Growing up with the example of my father, my mother, and the rest of my family taught me that helping people was just what we did. I try to teach my son the same thing… that “Our Family Helps People”. I want him to be unafraid to lend a hand to those in need and I’m trying to live up to the example set by my father.

Back then, helping people seemed so easy. Sure, it was hard work sometimes… but we were happy to do it. Helping people feels good. I’ve always said that I’ve gotten more back from working in EMS and the fire service than I could ever hope to give back to it. Helping people is in my blood, volunteering is in my blood.  My community needs me to volunteer for it, and I need to volunteer for my community.

Those of you that read the blog often know that I am a volunteer paramedic and firefighter as well as being a full time paramedic and firefighter. In both of my full-time jobs, I interface quite a lot with volunteer agencies and personnel. I know the volunteers well and I’ve explored the internal workings of a number of volunteer agencies. I don’t think that volunteers are “ruining” EMS or the fire service as I’ve seen some of my readers comment, but I don’t think that volunteer agencies should be exempt from even one requirement of their full-time counterparts. Volunteer agencies have a lot to live up to. They need to recruit and retain good people and they need those good people to want to devote large amounts of effort and time to help the agency succeed. They have to be well ran and have to make their people feel good about being there.

I’ve been around the business for a long time now and “helping people” has never been as easy as it used to be when my dad got me up for shoveling snow. Helping people has been sullied by politics, by personality conflicts and power plays, and has been tainted by flawed goals other than the pure want to help our neighbors in need. The myth of the “volunteer shortage” is just that. There is no shortage of people who want to “Help people”. There’s simply a shortage of volunteer agencies that aren’t tainted by personal politics. The fire service, EMS, and its close relatives have oodles of interpersonal politics at play in their internal workings. It pulls these agencies apart at the seams and puts people through the meat grinder unnecessarily. Good people get SO ANGRY at other good people and the original mission and drive that caused these good people to join the volunteer agency gets lost. Grudges get created and held for unbelievable long times. Feelings get hurt, people get hurt, and the community suffers for it.


If I have been guilty of this kind of behavior in the past, let me apologize for it now. I resolve to let my grudges go and work for the best interests of my community and of the people in need. If my personality doesn’t fit well with another volunteer’s I resolve to work with that person to the best extent because the fact that we both are there for our community and are committed to our mission gives us common ground to build upon. When I disagree with another committed person, I resolve to handle it in the most positive way possible and find the best solution for all concerned. I resolve to be nice and stay positive. I resolve to show resolve for making our agency the best it can be.

Look at that previous paragraph. It was hard for me to write that because while I have my grudges and disagreements with other volunteers, I don’t believe that they are my fault. Read that again. I don’t believe that I am at fault for the disagreements, arguments, and anger we’ve generated. I don’t believe I am at fault for the grudges I’ve held. I don’t believe that *I* am the one in the wrong.

Nobody wants to believe they are the ones in the wrong.

I’m letting that go. It doesn’t matter who is at fault. None of it is good for the community. It’s not good for our agency. It’s not good for our patients and it’s certainly not good for the people involved. While I will always believe in the free, fierce, and open debate of ideas, I’m resolving not to get angry anymore. I’m not bringing my ego to the table anymore. I want my agency to succeed, I want our community to be safe, and I want everyone that is dedicated to helping my community to do the best in life that they can.

Is it time for you to let things go as well?

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  • old white hat

    Very well said, God Bless you for the truth and honesty.

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  • Jill

    Not only all this terrific…but your dad stepped in after I lost my own dad and moved to Illinois. He would talk politics with me. He didn't judge…he knew I was kind of sensitive He reached out. We went to see a prominent Republican politician speak and we dissected and analyzed his speech on the way home in the pickup truck. He had the crab feast. He was one of those special souls. He made a bad situation better. I will always be grateful that he let me get to know him before he passed on. He left behind a fantastic wife and two amazing sons.

  • L Bell

    Awesome message. I hope you truly inspire others to change their perspective.

  • angelmedic

    We would all be a lot better off if we lived by these simple edicts. Thanks for sharing. I hope this circles like a wildfire through our ranks! This is one fire we can live with.

  • michael

    As long as people go a good job, I never cared where they came from. And if somebody is willing to volunteer, well then, who am I to discourage that. I know that is a simplistic view of things, but I stay as far away from politics as I can get.

  • Linda

    Very good advice!

  • Very well written and many good points as always. Thank you Chris!


  • Doc1490

    Great post. I've only commented once before but this one really resonated with me (the growing up/letting go part, I'm a full-on city-fied urban/suburbanite). I wish people in ALL public service positions could take that message to heart. Whether it be politicians, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, teachers, nurses, etc. etc, we often seem to be an angry group that holds grudges and don't work well with each other. We're letting our conflicts define us. It's high time we act like PROFESSIONALS, treat each other with respect (regardless of our differences), and get the job done.

    Thanks for putting that message into a much more readable and personal format than I ever could.

  • Great post, Chris. It's suddenly clearer how you came to be the man you are today. You're so fortunate to have some great models to emulate, and their lessons obviously had a profound impact on you. In the short time I've known you, you've demonstrated countless examples of your commitment to making a positive difference. And now I know it's merely something that comes naturally, with years of practice.

    “Helping people has been sullied by politics, by personality conflicts and power plays, and has been tainted by flawed goals other than the pure want to help our neighbors in need.” … Sadly, this is too often true. When we allow ourselves to stay mired in conflict, we surrender the energy we could otherwise be using to effect positive change. You're right in that we need to let go. It's the only way we'll reach any of the community's ultimate goals. That's not to say conflict will completely disappear. That's unrealistic. There will be disagreements, but we need to know they can and should be resolved through productive dialogue. And ultimately, we must all be committed to finding smart compromises and MOVING FORWARD.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Chris. I'll do my part. Thanks for doing yours.

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  • Sue

    I agree completely! I love the old saying, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy dies.” It is so true. Grudges don't help anyone (even if you ARE right) and always hurt you. Thanks for the reminder.

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