On an average day at the Nappanee Fire Department, the station is almost empty.
But when a call comes through on the portable radios the firefighters carry at all times, those who are able drop everything at their job and rush to the station to answer the call.
Because NFD is completely volunteer-based, all firefighters work their own job during the day — some close to the station in Nappanee and others in different cities — and only head to the station when there is a call.
Nappanee isn’t unique in being a solely volunteer department. According to the National Fire Department Census, 71 percent of the fire departments in the U.S. that are registered with the census are strictly volunteer.
However, Nappanee’s department is a little different. While the department is still considered to be volunteer, the firemen are paid a stipend at the end of the year, based mainly on the number of calls in which they participated, said Fire Chief Don Lehman. He said their definition of volunteer falls into a grey area.
Even though they are paid, Pat Neibert, a department facility manager and fireman, said that to him a volunteer department is one where the firemen are on-call 24/7, like Nappanee’s.
“We consider it a volunteer department,” Lehman said. “With the amount of money we’re getting paid, it’s really a part-time job.”
Even with the stipend, having a volunteer department still saves taxpayers a lot of money. Across the U.S., approximately $139.8 billion per year is saved by not having career firemen, according to a National Fire Protection Association report.
The only difference between being a career firefighter and a volunteer is the money and the way career departments operate, Neibert said. In a career department, the firefighters work in shifts and they stay at the station during their shifts; they have more time to train, a luxury volunteer firemen don’t have.
Neibert said being a volunteer firefighter has changed in the past few decades. He’s been with the department since 1976 and has seen the shift in the amount of training needed.
“It’s tougher for volunteers today because there’s more training required,” Neibert said. “Guys have to give up nights or Saturdays to train. When I came on, there was always a pool to pull from, and now today it’s not like that.”
When Neibert first started, training was left up to each local department. Now, the state keeps track of everything they do and requires it all be recorded.
Everyone in the department meets twice a month — every first and third Wednesday — to train. Neibert said sometimes the training is hands-on, other times it involves watching YouTube videos of calls gone wrong to learn from their mistakes.
Ryan Miller, a volunteer fireman who works at Market Street Auto Services in Nappanee, said often they work on the newer skills they’ve learned to make sure they stay on top. But even with bi-monthly meetings, the training still isn’t perfect.
“I’m not sure it’s ever really enough, but I think you can always learn from every call you go on,” Miller said. “Calls can actually be as good as trainings, if you take back what went right, what went good at calls, and you can learn from it that way too.”
Miller is lucky enough to work down the street from the station. His boss, Junior Mast, is also a member of the department.
“You work as much as you can when you can, and when the phones go, you have to go take care of what needs to be done,” Miller said.
Mast said that it’s a lot for a small business to give up when he and one of his employees have to leave for calls whenever needed.
“In order to walk out of your job, that employer gets you that authority to leave and come back and be able to function,” Mast said. “It’s a lot wherever you come from.”
Although the job takes time out of working pay, and can be dangerous, volunteers say they do it because they love to help people.
“I get a buzz on helping people when they are in need of help,” Neibert said. “That’s why I do my job.”
Mast said that for him, it’s something that’s in his blood. Although it can put his health at risk, and it is a huge commitment, it’s fulfilling for him.
“When it comes right down to it, who puts the fire out is every one of our names in that department,” Mast said. “We all put the fire out, whatever it takes to get there. And when things get tough, that’s when we get strong.”