Member Volunteer Firefighters

Rising from the ashes

CSEA members share their passion for being volunteer firefighters

Rising from the ashes

CSEA members share their passion for being volunteer firefighters

There is no doubt that classified employees are essential workers. Time and time again, especially since the onset of coronavirus, CSEA members have proven their dedication toward making sure the students, families and staff they serve have everything they need to stay healthy, connected and safe.

But some members have found a way to carry on that essential spirit outside of their schools by serving their communities as volunteer firefighters.

Almost 70 percent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers. In fact, 29 percent of all fire departments in California are made up solely of volunteers and another 27 percent are majority volunteers, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website.

"In small towns, we kind of just have to take care of each other"

“The protection of our communities at large depends greatly on volunteer departments,” said Alan Kramer, maintenance/custodian with Scott Valley Chapter 859. The current chief of the Etna Fire Department, he has been volunteering there since 1996.

“In small towns, we kind of just have to take care of each other,” Kramer said.

He responds to four or five calls a week and, like all volunteer firefighters, must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice and at any time of the day when the alarms go off. It could be when he is just about to sit down for dinner with the family, during an event or even in the middle of the night. After all, emergencies know no boundaries.

“The biggest challenge, I think, is balancing the volunteer activity with the rest of your life,” Kramer said.


Alan Kramer, Maintenance/Custodian, Scott Valley Chapter 859

Frank Carey, Facilities Foreman/Safety Officer, Plumas Chapter 193

Volunteer firefighters recall first responses

One of the early calls he remembers was around 3 a.m. for a structure fire in the middle of town. As he walked out the door of his house, located in the woods, he recalls that there was a huge red glow in the sky, which triggered a good deal of concern. The fire burned a two-story building that housed a hotel on the upper floor, a couple stores on the lower floor and got into a neighboring building. They were concerned they might lose a whole city block, but thanks to their efforts that continued until 6:30 p.m. that evening, they didn’t.

Frank Carey, facilities foreman and safety officer from Plumas Chapter 193, has been with the Quincy Volunteer Fire Department for 20 years and has been assistant chief for the last eight years. He said he will never forget his first call for a structure fire at a specific address he recognized: his wife’s grandfather’s house. He rushed to the station, hopped on the engine, then raced to the house only to find it engulfed in fire.

“The big relief that he had on his face when he saw me pulling in with that engine was real satisfying to me,” Carey said, sharing they spent about five or six hours on that structure fire.

There have been many large fires recently for him, including one about two months ago, when their local crisis center, brewery, theater and costume closet caught fire and took 11 hours to extinguish. About five years ago, an entire block burned down and required 15 hours of volunteer efforts.

He added that nine out of 10 times in his small town, they know who they’re going to when the address comes out.

"...the relief on their face is overwhelming actually to all of us who are on the department"

“It’s real hard to dissociate yourself with that, but the satisfaction of walking through that door and that person knowing who you are when you walk in, the relief on their face is overwhelming actually to all of us who are on the department,” Carey said.

Todd Turner, custodian with Plumas Chapter 193, is currently a volunteer firefighter with the Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Department and has been with them since the beginning of the year. They have no paid firefighters. Previously, he was on the City of Portola Fire Department for four-and-a-half years, but they no longer have a city department.

He remembers his first major call, which was three weeks after he started. He got paged to a fire structure and was in complete shock of how fast the fire was moving through the house. He was so stunned, Turner said he didn’t know how to react or what to do.

“We didn’t save the house, but we did save the people inside,” Turner said.

These days, he said the adrenaline rush is what keeps him going through the calls.


Todd Turner, Custodian, Plumas Chapter 193

"...when someone is calling 9-1-1, it’s one of the worst days in their life, and if we can make that just a little bit easier on them, it’s very satisfying to us."

"...when someone is calling 9-1-1, it’s one of the worst days in their life, and if we can make that just a little bit easier on them, it’s very satisfying to us."

Alan Kramer poses with Smokey the Bear and antique vehicles prior to an Etna parade. Smokey always rides on the antique Chevy flatbed to the right and the fire engine. To the left is a 1932 Dodge Brothers that has spent its entire life with the Etna Fire Department and was restored 25 years ago.

Firefighters respond to more than local fires

In addition to responding to structure and wildland fires, most calls for volunteer firefighters are for medical emergencies, car accidents, chemical spills and more.

“I live in a very small community, so we pretty much know everybody,” Kramer said. “When there’s an accident or a suicide or some traumatic experience, it greatly affects everybody in the community and so those are some of the things that are more difficult to deal with emotionally.”

"When there’s an accident or suicide or some traumatic experience, it greatly affects everyone in the community...”

Not only do volunteer firefighters respond to emergencies in their own communities, they are called to support nearby incidents or major fires such as the many that have occurred across the state. This year, with the number of incidents and local resources being overwhelmed, volunteers have been called to help in adjacent areas more than ever. During nearly his entire time with the department, Kramer said he has responded to numerous fires in other areas, primarily during the summer.

Most recently, he had a crew and an engine out on the Sheep fire in Susanville when the fire in Happy Camp broke out, a two-hour drive from his hometown. That fire burned 100,000 acres in the first 24 hours and destroyed over 150 homes.

“That was a pretty strenuous response because everywhere in the state—and actually all up and down the West Coast—fire services were just overwhelmed,” Kramer said. “So there were very few people who responded and we had a lot of responsibility for pretty much two days without any relief.”

Kramer said normally a fire like that would have several hundred people that are immediately involved, but they only had around 30.

“Once again, without the volunteers they would have been in much worse shape,” he said. “So the volunteers are essential for our communities.”

Over one three-month period, Turner responded to 90 calls. A couple months ago, he responded to a fire in Quincy involving five buildings where he spent three-and-a-half hours up on the ladder, 75 feet in the air, with nothing but smoke in his face and spraying water on the flames.

“We had every department in the county trying to put this fire out,” Turner recalls, stating they were there for nine hours.

"...the volunteers are essential for our communities."

This summer, Turner has spent 32 days fighting fires. He was sent to the Sheep Fire in Susanville for 21 days and returned home for a week before he had to turn around and respond to the North Complex Fire in Plumas County. Most recently, he was sent to the Zogg Fire in Shasta County for 10 days.

“It’s hard being a volunteer because you work 24-hour shifts, which end up being turned into 34-hour shifts,” Turner said. “You pretty much want to eat, sleep and turn around and do it again the next day.”

Carey said he has not been involved in any of the major fires this year, but responded to local fires in Claremont and Belmont.

Todd Turner (left) and another firefighter pose for a picture after laying out 2,300 feet of hose at the bottom of the hill on the Sheep Fire to prevent the fire from crossing the creek bed at the bottom.

Frank Carey practices cutting ventilation holes, working off a roof ladder, on a steep pitched roof prop at the Rio Hondo Truck Academy that he attended in January.

COVID-19 has changed firefighting protocols

The onset of the coronavirus has added more protocols to ensure everyone—those in need of emergency help and firefighters—stay safe. It starts with dispatch getting as much information as possible to determine if it will likely be a COVID-19 response. If it is, they must gown and mask up in their PPE, knock on the door, maintain distance and gather as much information as they can before approaching the patient.

Another major difference has been in the large fires. Normally when there’s a major fire like we have seen many of this summer, firefighters would gather around tables for lunch and bunk up with as many people as possible in trailers. Instead, food is packed up in boxes, one person from the engine or crew picks it up for everybody and they eat in isolation.

Turner said sleeping arrangements have also been different, with half the amount of people sleeping in trailers than had previously. On one fire, for example, he was in a 53-foot trailer with 35 beds in it but just 16 people stayed there, and only because they worked together in a pod. Additionally, all meetings were held with everyone wearing masks, six feet away from one another, sitting in groups with people they work with every day.

In addition to the massive time commitment and now with the complication of additional precautions, volunteer recruitment and retention can be difficult. Kramer said that people think they want to be a firefighter until they realize the immense amount of time, resources and emotion it takes. But knowing that they make a difference is what keeps them going.

“When someone is calling 9-1-1, it’s one of the worst days in their life, and if we can make that just a little bit easier on them, it’s very satisfying to us,” Carey said.

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