During the early morning hours at a family home in rural Flathead County, a leftover and forgotten firework from the previous day’s Fourth of July celebration begins to smolder under the home’s deck, then rapidly spreads. Flames begin to scale the home’s wood siding at an alarming rate. Fortunately, a passing motorist notices the conflagration and calls 911.
What happens now is really quite remarkable. The dispatcher that takes the call immediately dispatches the fire department in that district and, according to preset protocols, automatically dispatches other nearby departments for mutual aid. The system has been activated; the “family” has been called and their response is impressive.
This family consists of hundreds of emergency responders who train throughout the year for just such emergencies and, incredibly, most of us are volunteers. We must meet standards for competency and work hard to do so. Throughout the year we respond to sick calls, fires, motor vehicle accidents, trauma of all sorts, and to some stuff that is stranger than fiction.
I’ve been a part of this family as a volunteer firefighter/EMT for nearly 20 years, and while I’ve been active, my participation pales in comparison to some who truly dedicate their lives to the volunteer fire/EMS service. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, over 90 percent of Montana fire departments are volunteer or mostly volunteer. Unless you live in one of the larger cities in Montana, when you call 911, the first responders are very likely volunteers. We have dropped whatever we were doing or roused ourselves from sleep, to come to your aid. Bizarrely, we willingly do so over and over again. We are an odd lot, I grant you that.
This summer has been one to remind of us of firefighters and we are all grateful for the dedication and commitment not only from volunteer firefighters, but also from career and seasonal firefighters, many of whom spend long periods of time away from their families, working in strenuous and hazardous conditions.
The cool thing is that this is something we can all participate in. Thank a firefighter for the job she or he is doing. That’s often the only pay we get, and it’s quite adequate. Be patient with us when we have our big red trucks and flashing lights plugging up the highway while you are on your way home or to the lake. We will have you moving as quickly as we can safely do so, and remember we are only there because someone is having a really, really bad day. Please do not attempt to film the scene as you drive by. Finally, consider being part of the system. We are always looking for compassionate, community-minded individuals who are willing operate under stress, learn new things and be a part of our family.
Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.