By Jonathan Olsen
I was homeschooled for my whole life until I started college last semester. The home learning environment was ideally suited for constructive creativity. My favorite pastimes included playing Age of Empires, building LEGO cities, and launching model rockets. I traveled with my family to the beach, the mountains, and the desert. We had many fun adventures camping, hiking, biking, swimming, and kayaking. In addition, we went on lots of educational field trips to museums, zoos, and historical sites.
At one time we had homeschool classes at our church. When I was eight years old, a fire engine from the station down the road came to visit us (see photo). I remember meeting the firefighters, learning about fire safety, climbing up into the big red vehicle, and being given a plastic fire helmet to wear. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this experience must have left an impression on me. Ten years later I’m actually working with some of those firefighters!
I’ve always been a hands-on person and would not like to sit in an office all day. After considering the idea of being a voice actor or chef, in high school I decided that I wanted to fight fires as a profession. This interest grew out of a desire to serve the community, along with my natural passion for helping others. I’ve always been able to get along well with all kinds of people from young kids to senior citizens, which is good for this type of job. My parents also instilled in me the value of lifelong learning, just as firefighters continually challenge themselves to improve their skills with ongoing training.
Community service was an important part of my education while I was growing up. My homeschool group volunteered at places like the Pioneer Living History Museum and High Desert Park. Due to my interest in a firefighting career I looked up volunteer opportunities at my local fire department, and found out about the Fire Corps and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
These two organizations do different things, but they are both partner programs under the umbrella of the national Citizen Corps initiative. Fire Corps members are not volunteer firefighters, but rather are citizen volunteers who support the fire department by performing basic but vital non-operational tasks. CERT volunteers work in conjunction with the fire department and other public safety organizations to assist in emergency and event management, as well as community outreach and education.
This particular fire department has a minimum age of 18 to join the Fire Corps and CERT groups that they sponsor. So while still in high school I began preparing so that I would be ready to volunteer as soon as I was old enough. I started regularly attending the monthly Citizen Corps meetings which are open to the public. I received my certification cards in CPR/AED and Basic First Aid. I attended an Emergency Trauma class and completed an 8-week CERT course. This training consisted of disaster preparedness, fire safety, basic emergency response skills, light search and rescue, and handling mass casualties with triage.
On my 18th birthday, I submitted my application for a volunteer position with the fire department’s Citizen Corps program. It felt like I was applying for a job; I was interviewed by a panel of firefighters, had my fingerprints taken, and underwent a background check. I was impressed by how cautious they are when selecting their volunteers. Later I learned that part of the reason for this is because the average citizen can not tell the difference between a firefighter, an EMT, and a volunteer, so I am viewed by the public as a representative of the fire department.
As an official volunteer I wear a uniform and ID badge while on duty. Even though I’m not a paid employee, the fire department makes me feel like I’m a part of their team. I think they appreciate having us there to do the “grunt” work which frees up their time so they can focus on what they do best, which is emergency response. Volunteers are free to offer any level of service that they are able to, and I try to participate as much as possible.
At first I was mainly interested in the Fire Corps since I plan to be a firefighter, but soon I became active with the CERT team as well. The Fire Corps has a regular schedule of weekly duties to perform. We go around to all of the fire stations in the district, making sure each one is stocked with the necessary medical equipment and housekeeping supplies. CERT members staff a first aid trailer and community education booths at special events, which usually take place on weekends and holidays. There are also occasions when we may staff a relief trailer during actual emergency situations.
My time with the Fire Corps and CERT team has been a valuable experience for me. I am actively involved in community events such as the Fourth of July celebration and the Veteran’s Day Parade. I participated in the funeral procession for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. I had an opportunity to ride along on emergency calls and inspect the structure of a hospital under construction. I have been able to talk to many firefighters about their job responsibilities and listen to them share tips on getting hired.
After successfully completing the initial required training, Fire Corps and CERT team volunteers have many more opportunities for additional training and practice exercises. This includes radio communications, emergency operations, and related tasks that will allow them to contribute to recovery efforts after catastrophic events such as fires, floods, and other disasters. I had a lot of fun volunteering as a role player in a disaster preparedness drill.
Since enrolling in the Fire Science program at the community college, I discovered that what I learn in the Fire Corps and CERT programs help to clarify what I study in college. So far I’ve completed a Hazardous Materials course, received my EMT certificate, and am currently taking an Introduction to Fire Suppression class. At the same time, I’m sure all of the information that I study in college will also be useful in enhancing my volunteer experience.
I enjoy volunteering in this capacity because I feel like I’m doing an important service for my hometown fire department. It gives me a unique opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge from an inside perspective. I now have a better understanding about the role of the fire and emergency services in the community. Volunteering has given me a greater respect for the firefighters and everything they do, while boosting my own confidence and inspiring me to stay focused on my goal of becoming a professional firefighter.
You can make a difference in your community! Whatever your skills and experience, there is a need for you as a support member of your local fire department. Some cities even have special volunteer programs for teens. To learn more and to find a program in your area, visit the National Fire Corps site and the National CERT program site.