Volunteer Firefighters: Answering the Call

Volunteer firefighter fireman firemen blaze
CBS
The many volunteers who protect our lives and communities all year long deserve our heartfelt thanks this weekend. That's the way it is with these volunteers, of whom our Peter Greenberg is one. Here he is with their story:

It happens every 23 seconds . . . somewhere in this country firefighters are responding to a call.

And what you probably don't know is that three-quarters of them are volunteers, taking their lives in their hands - and sometimes paying the ultimate price . . .

Every October, thousands converge on northern Maryland town of Emmitsburg, at the National Fire Academy, to pay tribute to these men and women who've lost their lives in the line of duty.

This year 105 firefighters were recognized, and 43 were volunteers.

Volunteers like Steven Koeser. His friends and family called him "Peanut"…

"One way to describe him, he had a heart of gold," said Kelly Walesh. She met Koeser seven years ago. Not long afterward, they became a couple . . .

"He was a jack of all trades," she said, who loved his daughter.

So, a few weeks ago, Walesh traveled from the village of St. Anna in central Wisconsin to remember, AND honor, the father of their daughter, Lexus.

It happened last December. Koeser, a 15-year veteran volunteer, responded to a call . . . a dumpster fire at a metal foundry.

The dumpster exploded, injuring eight and killing Steven Koeser.

Kelly "freaked out." The first thing in her mind, she said, was their daughter.

At first, four-year-old Lexus didn't quite understand.

"She'd say once in a while, 'When's Daddy coming home?' And I said, 'He's not,'" Kelly recalled. "And after a couple months she started asking questions about what happened, and [I] answered them honestly and I think she understands now."

"I do," Lexus said.

Towns across the country rely on volunteers like Steven Koeser to respond when the call comes in. In Wisconsin alone, of the state's 870 fire departments, some 800 are volunteer.

In the town of La Farge (population 775), just about anyone can join.

Chief Philip Stittleburg is an attorney and retired criminal prosecutor. Dave Sarnowski is a retired schoolteacher. Reggie Nelson works for Verizon Telephone.

The department's budget is just $35,000 a year.

Nationwide, it's estimated that volunteers save communities $37 billion a year in labor costs.

"In addition to providing coverage for the village, we provide coverage to all parts of seven surrounding townships, too," said Stittleburg. "So we've got a coverage area of 135 square miles."

"They're the backbone of our rescue system across the United States," said Jamie Smith, director of the Museum of Firefighting in Hudson, N.Y. "I mean, what would we do without them?"

Smith says the very first volunteer fire brigades in America were organized by Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the Dutch settlement of New Netherland.

"He did a lot for fire prevention safety," she said. "He appointed fire wardens to go around and examine chimneys - and, if they were not clean, to fine those people."

The museum's collection chronicles the legacy of volunteer firefighting in America . . .

"It's part of our culture," said Smith. "They've just always been there, and then they're taken for granted and no one thinks twice about it."

But NOT in towns like La Farge. Here, volunteers aren't just part of the fabric of the community . . . they are the community.

So when they respond to a call, there's a 100-percent chance that the person in need will be either a neighbor, a friend, or someone even closer.

As tough as it can be sometimes, helping your neighbor in their hour of need is what volunteer fire fighting is all about.

Payday, says Chief Stittleburg, is "Thank you."

"When the person comes up, and shakes your hand and says, 'Thank you for saving my house.' 'Thank you for cutting my child out of that crashed vehicle.' 'Thank you for saving everything in the world that's important to me.' That's payday."

For more info:
National Volunteer Fire Council
FASNY Museum of Firefighting
Ocean Bay Park Fire Department
La Farge (Wis.) Fire Department on Facebook
National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
At. Anna Fire Department
statter911.com