Volunteer vs Regular/Career Firefighter: What’s The Difference?


Are you thinking about becoming a volunteer firefighter and wondering whether you’ll be taken as seriously as the career firefighters in your area? Are you a career firefighter wondering why your service uses volunteers? Either way, we’ve got you covered and you’ll be pleased to learn that both groups make valuable contributions to fighting fires. So, what is the difference?

Volunteer firefighters and career/paid firefighters are more similar than they are different. They both perform the same basic jobs and tasks. However, career firefighters usually work more hours and may have more advanced training, as it is a paid position.

We will talk more about the details that make volunteer and career firefighters different below. Also, we will take a look a the pros and cons of each.

Also read: How to Become a Firefighter: The Complete Guide

What Is a Volunteer Firefighter?

firefighters extinguishing big fire

A volunteer firefighter is a member of the public who offers to give their time to their local fire department for free. They do this to service their community and to help with the important job of tackling fires and medical emergencies. 

They respond to emergency calls and receive training, much the same as any firefighter. However, they usually do it on their off time from their paid jobs. They may work shifts at the station and/or respond to calls from their home or job site.

Here is a look at what it is like to be a volunteer firefighter:

Pros and Cons of Volunteer Firefighters

There are many pros and cons to being a volunteer firefighter and we’ve tried to focus on those that are unique to being a volunteer as opposed to a paid firefighter for this list, though there are – by necessity – a few moments of crossover.

Volunteer Firefighter Pros

  1. Volunteer firefighters get the satisfaction of knowing they’ve done something altruistic for their community. They’ve shared their time, effort, and skills for free to make the world a better place.
  2. Volunteer firefighters benefit from a variety of free training that may be of use in their daily life, in particular, EMS classes and firefighting classes. 
  3. Volunteer firefighters are often well-placed to land a job with the fire department if they want them and have some experience to make recruitment easier too. It can be a great stepping stone to a competitive career firefighter position.
  4. Volunteer firefighters get to assist with tackling real fires in real life and saving real lives.
  5. Volunteer firefighters can bring experience from outside of the fire service which can help to drive positive change within the fire service itself.  
  6. Volunteer firefighters allow the state to stretch their fire service budget and provide a much broader service than they might otherwise be able to. A study in 2014, established that in Texas alone – 72,000 volunteer firefighters helped to keep the budget down by $6 billion!

Volunteer Firefighter Cons

  1. Volunteer firefighters are often under-appreciated for the work that they do – if you’re not motivated by personal satisfaction, you should be warned that they don’t often get a pat on the head or formal recognition for their efforts.
  2. Volunteer firefighters still have to respond to calls and train in addition to their day job, and this can mean working through the night with very little chance to recover before you go on to work or whatever your next commitment is.
  3. Volunteer firefighters may lack the practical experience when it comes to working on a scene and are thus limited to the roles that they can serve when in action – a paid firefighter can put in 56-72 hours a week of work, in contrast, a volunteer may only give that much time in a month or even a year, there is a skill gap that arises from this.
  4. Volunteer firefighters are sometimes resented by their full-time colleagues who fear, rightly or wrongly, that they are taking away jobs from their group. 
  5. Volunteer firefighters can sometimes become resentful over the fact that they are not being paid for hard, dangerous work. 
  6. Volunteer firefighters are often young and may struggle to assert themselves or to be recognized as equals by the more experienced firefighters around them. 
  7. Volunteer firefighters may, in rare instances (such as the event that took place in Maryland in 2015 where a property was allowed to burn as professional firefighters and volunteer firefighters squabbled over who was responsible for putting it out) by led into direct conflict with full-time firefighters

We want to stress at this point that we’ve tried to touch on all the potential cons in a thorough and complete manner but that the majority of these issues are not particularly common. The reason we can cite a problem in Maryland in 2015 is that it’s a rare event and not a weekly occasion. 

We also omitted the serious input of several volunteer firefighters who noted that it’s easy to put on weight eating the diet of a volunteer firefighter. We think you already know that this is a potential hazard of any job, and that you’re not required to eat the donuts that you will be offered. 

Also read: Do You Get Paid As A Volunteer Firefighter?

Pros and Cons of Paid Firefighters

Becoming a paid firefighter also has its positives and its drawbacks and it’s important to realize that not everything is a bed of roses just because a firefighter gets a paycheck. 

Career Firefighter Pros

  1. Paid firefighters, by definition, get paid and that’s a clear benefit of being a full-time career firefighter. You won’t get rich being a firefighter, but you can support a family in the job. 
  2. Paid firefighters tend to be perceived by the public, media, etc. as “real firefighters” and thus, they command almost instant respect in their community
  3. Paid firefighters also get great benefits and they have solid levels of job security, even in a recession – nobody can justify allowing fires to be left to burn
  4. Paid firefighters can spend more time focusing on their personal fitness – when firefighting is your full-time job, you can devote more time on developing yourself than someone who has another job and volunteer firefight to do 
  5. Paid firefighters can climb the career ladder – that doesn’t mean that every firefighter is aiming to run a fire department, but it does mean that those with ambition can fulfill that ambition
  6. Paid firefighters tend to have a very close bond with those around them – when you spend dozens of hours a week in potential life or death situations with a small group of people, you can build really solid bonds something that a volunteer might struggle to find

Career Firefighter Cons

  1. Paid firefighters have a higher chance of experience injury or being exposed to severe trauma – this should be obvious but the more time you spend doing something dangerous, the more likely it is that something unfortunate might happen to you
  2. Paid firefighters can find the job takes a toll on their relationships outside of work – long hours, shift work and a modest pay packet can sometimes add up to trouble at home. Volunteers will usually have more time with their families and a greater level of control over what times they can be available to others too

Is It Worth It Being a Firefighter?

As you can see there are real pros and cons to being a firefighter but that doesn’t mean that we wish we were in another job.

Being a firefighter is one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet, for the right kind of person.

If you believe in hard work, supporting your community, learning valuable skills, saving lives, honesty and honorable behavior supported by a strong set of values – there are very few jobs as satisfying as being a firefighter.

It might not be for everyone but for the people who are called to be firefighters, it’s very much the right choice. 

Are Volunteer Firefighters Real Firefighters?

Yes. They are just as much real firefighters as any career firefighters. 70% of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers.

A volunteer firefighter may face some additional challenges while they carry out their job but they are certainly a real firefighter. No-one is allowed to take part in the business of firefighting unless they have been trained to be both safe and competent as they work.

Firefighting can be a dangerous business and firefighters are not just responsible for their own lives, but their actions also affect the lives of other firefighters and the public at large. These responsibilities mean that a firefighter must always be well-trained and effective in their role – failure in this respect would come at far too high a price. 

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter, read this article: How To Become A Volunteer Firefighter: A Guide

And watch this video:

Conclusion

Volunteer vs career firefighter: what’s the difference? A volunteer firefighter is a valuable addition to any firefighting team, and they are trained and supported to contribute to saving lives and serving the public. However, there are real differences which stem from a lower level of time commitment and a career firefighter will be more experienced, in most cases, but not always, than a volunteer.

There are also some smaller pettier issues that volunteer firefighters may face in certain situations. While we would note that these can be kind of annoying, they shouldn’t deter anyone from seeking a volunteer opportunity in the fire service which can be very personally rewarding for the right kind of individual. 

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Chase

I have been a Firefighter in Northern California since 2012 and a Paramedic since 2008. My site is dedicated to helping answer questions people have about the fire service. I am passionate about helping to share what I have learned and assisting those who are pursuing a career as a firefighter. Thanks for coming to my site!

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