In the United States, 71% of all fire departments are volunteer, meaning they are staffed by community members who receive little or no monetary compensation for their time. At the age of 15 I pulled the local fire chief aside and let him know that I was interested. At the time, the minimum age was 16 to respond to calls for service and begin training, but he waived the training portion of that requirement for me.
Things Kids Shouldn’t See
While training, I would often ride with my station Captain in a one of the fire units while we practiced everything from driving on the beach, to hooking up a fire hydrant. Because we were short staffed, whenever I was with him and a call came out, I’d get to come along. I was to keep my hands to myself, my mouth shut, and take everything in.
When I finally hit 16 years old, my very first call was a car crash on the major highway in the area. Two people were dead, flames were starting to show in the engine compartment, and my station was the closest one. I hopped into my protective gear and raced the quarter mile down to the fire station, where I waited for my Captain to arrive to take us to the scene.
When we arrived, I saw a scene that would leave me with nightmares for months. Two bodies were in the front of a passenger car that hit a large commercial truck. The driver of the truck was inconsolable, but we still had a job to do. We doused the flames, secured the passenger vehicle, and began to wait.
The Waiting Game
What they don’t tell you on the news is that for all fatal car crashes, a specially trained technician must come to the scene and, through science and math, reconstruct exactly what happened before anything but the most emergent issues are taken care of.
The process itself can take a couple hours, but we were a very rural community, so our designated technician was with the state police, and was over two hours away. Because we would be needed when the reconstruction was done, and there was still a potential for the vehicle to reignite, we were forced to stay on scene for hours, making small talk with each other, the local police, and once he’d been consoled enough to calm down, the driver of the commercial truck.
When the reconstruction was finally done, it was our job as firefighters to remove the bodies from the car and put them on the waiting gurneys from the county coroner. This is likely where the most disturbing part of the story happens. My duty was to carry the legs of the passenger. When I gripped the legs, I learned that the bones had turned to dust. There was absolutely nothing ridged in the legs, which is something you can never prepare yourself for.
This is certainly one of my most interesting stories from being a volunteer firefighter, but it doesn’t bring across how great of an opportunity it is. There are hard times on ‘the job’, sure, but the feeling of helping people through what is the hardest night of their lives cannot be put into words. It is the most rewarding thing I have ever done, and something I highly suggest everyone take the opportunity to do. The rewards are limitless.