Jackson Phillips, ’19

What does community service mean to you? Many people just see it as a way to
improve their image. Due to this, people lean towards opportunities that can either be done for a week and forgotten about for that class requirement, or something that just looks really fancy on a resume or college application. In all of this, the spirit of service is being lost, as people put themselves before the community that is supposed to be served. When one brings up the volunteer fire service, many students discredit it, due to the commitment that it requires. However, when students reject this opportunity, they are shutting a door, a door that might change their lives.

“I don’t need to serve, someone else will,” you might think. However, this is simply
untrue. The American volunteer fire service is in a crisis. Without new recruits entering the fire service, there are fewer and fewer people to replace the older members who are becoming unable to serve. While this is going on, the fire service is expected to provide even more services to the people they protect. Pennsylvania, a state that relies on volunteer firefighters in many places, now has only 38,000 volunteer firefighters, plummeting from 300,000 in the past forty years, according to FEMA. Our nation needs people to protect us from one of the most dangerous threats, fire, and fewer people hear the call each day.

DeWitt FD Members during live fire training. Photo by DeWitt FD reprinted with permission.

At the age of 16, one can apply to volunteer at the DeWitt Fire Department. After a background check, a few interviews, and basic orientation, volunteer recruits must complete the training to receive their Firefighter 1 certification, alongside a few other certifications. This process takes over 5 months of attending training sessions multiple times a week. Trainees will become familiar with the various tools firefighters need to know how to use and the skills required to successfully fulfill their duties. These skills range from putting on turnout gear in less than a minute, using fire extinguishers and hoselines, water supply, ground ladder operations, forcible entry, interior firefighter operations, and many other things. However, once you obtain your certifications, these certifications are valid statewide, and if you take a special exam, you can obtain your national certifications, allowing you to serve as a firefighter in departments outside New York State.

The DeWitt Fire Department is located at 4500 East Genesee Street in DeWitt, New York. It was founded in the early 1930’s by Levi Waters to provide firefighting services to the DeWitt Fire District and the surrounding area. Currently, over 40 members serve in the department, ranging from volunteer and career operational staff to administration. The DFD is a combination department, with both 24/7 career staff and a dedicated corps of volunteer firefighters. The department focuses on preventing and responding to emergencies. Besides firefighting services, the DFD supplies emergency medical services to the district with a number of paramedics and EMTs. On average, the DFD responds to over 2,000 emergency calls a year, averaging around 5-6 a day. Besides emergency response, the department serves a key role in the community by providing fire safety education to the citizens of the fire district and surrounding jurisdictions.

The author demonstrates Engine 8 during a station tour.

Volunteering at the DFD is a serious commitment of time and energy, so prospective
applicants must be aware of that. Besides the initial time investment in getting your
certifications, you must complete in-house training to familiarize yourself with the equipment and procedures within the department. Once that training is completed, you can finally sign up for duty shifts, in which you are at the station, responding to emergency calls, training, and completing various tasks around the station. However, your training does not stop there. Every Tuesday night, there is a training session to teach and polish your skills in the various tasks that firefighters are expected to complete. Training attendance is key, and staying on top of your skills is essential. Besides duty shifts and training, members are also able to participate in numerous community events, such as the two annual open houses, parades, and other events. Over the years, this can add up to hundreds of hours. Another thing to note is that the DeWitt Fire Department is an organization with strict discipline and standards to ensure that the team is able to serve the community to the fullest extent possible. This is not a place to volunteer for a few weeks for a class or organization requirement; this is a place to serve your community for an extended period of time.

DeWitt FD Members during training. Photo by DeWitt FD reprinted with permission.

Volunteering at the DeWitt Fire Department has many benefits as well. You will gain
various certifications that can be extremely useful later in life. You will be able to serve your community in a capacity unlike any other. You will work alongside a dedicated corps of both career staff and volunteer firefighters, all with their own wisdom and experience that you will learn from. You will learn discipline and gain maturity over the time that you spend with the department. You will be able to become part of an organization dedicated to service, and you will actually be able to truly help other people. The benefits that the DFD offers are second to none, and will prepare you for the future more than any other organization.

Until you are 18, you are considered a “Restricted Access Member”, or a RAM for short. RAMs are restricted in the times they are allowed to work shifts on school nights, prohibited from operating various power tools outside of training settings, prohibited from emergency operations that require self-contained breathing apparatus, and expected to maintain certain academic requirements, amongst other things. Upon turning 18, these restrictions are waived after department approval.

DeWitt FD Members during live fire training. Photo by DeWitt FD reprinted with permission.

What about me? I joined the DFD in 2017 as a RAM. I got my certifications that year, and in early 2018 started, responding on calls. I have participated in countless drills, and served a sizable number of duty shifts. Without a doubt, serving with the DeWitt Fire Department changed my life more than any other experience in my life. I cannot state it enough that without the DeWitt Fire Department, I would not be the person that I am today. Comparing myself before and after my time in the department is comparing two completely different people.

From the time I joined the DFD and now, not a single person besides myself has
participated in the RAM program. It may be due to the fact that very few people know about the RAM program, and with this article I hope to change that. Another likely cause is that for many people, community service has been reduced to resume padding in recent years. It is time for a reinvigoration of community service. It also may be that many people simply isolate themselves from the rest of their communities. If you are over 16, or will be soon, and you are interested in being a part of a team, learning valuable skills, and serving your community, this is the definitive program for you.