The heroes among us: Volunteer firefighters

The heroes among us: Volunteer firefighters

Every May, International Firefighter Appreciation Day recognizes the dedication and sacrifice of millions around the world

Volunteer firefighters aren’t just your neighbors; they’re also your doctor, lawyer, nurse and even the utility worker you pass by every day.

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The National Fire Protection Association says there are 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. Of them, nearly 790,000 are volunteers, ready to drop everything to help save people and property in their community.

The tradition dates to colonial times when, in 1736, Benjamin Franklin started the first fire department in Philadelphia. Now, volunteers are required to take about 240 hours of training for certification, and then 190 more hours every year.

International Firefighter Appreciation Day is observed in May to honor the memory of five firefighters in Australia who died in 1999 battling a wildfire. At Duke Energy, the nation's largest power company, many employees give of themselves as volunteer firefighters. Meet a sampling from around the U.S.:

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Andy Hale

Andy Hale

Job at Duke Energy: Production team member, Gibson Station, Owensville, Ind.

Department: Firefighter, three years, Owensville-Montgomery Township Fire Protection District.

Personal: My girlfriend, Beth Mincey, is a 17-year veteran of the fire service (10 years career and seven as a volunteer).  We met in the fire service, on scenes and just in passing.

Why did you become a firefighter? When I first started working for Duke, we went through the 40-hour initial fire brigade training and that was where my interest sparked. 

Why do you continue to be a firefighter? Helping my community is an amazing feeling. I also enjoy the camaraderie and brotherhood of the service. In my department, there are 35 volunteer firemen, which means I have 35 brothers.

What I’ve learned: Realization of what goes on in the world. Complete strangers risk their lives for their neighbor – not thinking twice of what they could lose. Now that is truly caring for your community.

Advice for someone considering becoming a volunteer firefighter: Be prepared that once the bug bites you, you'll be in it for a lifetime. 

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Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry        

Job at Duke Energy: Fuel equipment operator, Crystal River Energy Complex, Crystal River, Fla.

Department: Firefighter/public information officer, Rombout Fire Co., 14 years.

Personal: I grew up on Long Island and moved to the Hudson Valley, N.Y., when I married my wife, Patti, in 1990. (She was a firefighter/police officer.) We have one daughter, Michele, who will be graduating from Seton Hall University with a master’s degree in May 2016.

Why did you become a firefighter? Due to the impact of 9/11 on the Hudson Valley region, which was my home, I re-evaluated what I wanted to do and how I could better serve my local community.

Most moving experience: We were taught that when a hearing-impaired person is in trouble, their lack of communication skills prevents relaying information. Within days of this training, our fire department worked with the county 911 center to address the problem. We focused on better educating first responders and now the center has a 24/7 emergency contact information for an interpreter.

Advice for someone considering becoming a volunteer firefighter: You will never know where the road will take you. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

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Jeff Hovis

Jeff Hovis

Job at Duke Energy: Operations supervisor, Allen Plant, Belmont, N.C.

Department: Chief, East Gaston Volunteer Fire Department, 31 years.

Personal: I live in Mount Holly, N.C., with my wife, Lisa; daughter, Shelby, 20; son, Jacob, 18 (also with the East Gaston department). We have two dogs, Emma and Bailey.

Why did you become a firefighter? Joining my local volunteer fire department was a way to give back to the community.

Why do you continue to be a firefighter? The public needs us.

What I’ve learned: It can be rewarding, tiring, time-demanding and heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time.

Quote: “You have to have a very understanding family. It's tough to leave your family in the middle of the night, at a cookout, Christmas morning or even during a severe weather emergency.”

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Scott Shear

Scott Shear

Job at Duke Energy: Nuclear fire protection instructor, Kings Mountain, N.C./Oconee Nuclear Station, Seneca, S.C.

Department: Firefighter, Keowee Fire Department, Salem, S.C. (total of 25 years in service). Personal: Married, two daughters; father was an EMT and volunteer rescue squad member.

Why did you become a firefighter? Joined after spending a couple shifts helping at the station during senior year of high school.

Why do you continue to be a firefighter? I believe it is important to help serve in the community that we live in.

What I’ve learned: The importance of teamwork and ability to increase my situational awareness.

Quote: “My team – Robert Jackson, Sammy Willis, John Sledge, Bill Matthias and Alvin Ward –does not stop fighting fire just at our jobs. Each one on our team volunteers to their own local community. It says a lot when an entire team can leave work for the day and still give their all to not only their family, but their communities as well.”

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Mark Tanner

Mark Tanner     

Job at Duke Energy: IT analyst, Augustine Substation, Covington, Ky. 

Department: Assistant chief, Union Ky./Verona, Ky., 30 years.

Personal: Married; boys ages 21 and 25 (son Brad is in the fire service). Two dogs, Lucy and Daisy. 

Surprising thing about being a firefighter? I did not realize I would be there 30 years. 

What I’ve learned: The fire service becomes a second family for you.

Quote: “I have been a volunteer since I was 18. My son was exposed to the fire/EMS service as a child and he ended up doing it as a career … and he still volunteers at his local department. We all have our way of contributing.”

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