Cheri Leete: “Volunteer Emergency Medical Services in Vermont”

Emergency medical services or EMS are close to home for me: I work in a hospital emergency department, I have been married to a fire fighter, and many of my friends are fire fighters and EMTs or paramedics. I’ve seen up close and first-hand the commitment, pride, and sacrifice — as well as the joy and heart break — that go into the everyday lives of anyone in EMS. I have been in the car when my spouse or a friend had to respond to an emergency call. I have missed dinners, waited for hours at the fire station, and greeted first responders at the bay when they arrive in the emergency department. All of which is why I celebrate these Vermont heroes.

Volunteer Hero Picture

(Spanier, 2012)

Volunteer EMS in Vermont consists of fire and medical rescue services. Some towns have one department for both services, others have separate departments. There are a few paid departments in Vermont, typically in the bigger towns like Burlington, South Burlington, and Barre. For most of the state these services rely on volunteers. Town budgets simply would be unable to handle the expense of full-time paid staff. It would cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $140.7 billion every year if all the volunteer first responders were replaced with career staff. (How to, 2015) According to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (2007, November 12):

Vermont has 5,600 volunteer and 300 professional firefighters. Vermont relies much more heavily on volunteers than the rest of the country. While 94 percent of Vermont’s firefighters are volunteers, 73 percent of American firefighters are volunteers. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that volunteer firefighters provide $37 billion in service nationwide. This means that each volunteer who showed up in Randolph [at a town meeting I hosted] contributes about $45,000 worth of his or her own time to support their community. What an enormous contribution!

So what happens when you need a fire truck or an ambulance? Who is going to show up? What can you do to make it easier?

When you have an emergency situation such as a fire or a medical problem that requires immediate advanced care, call 9-1-1. A dispatch operator will answer your call.  With the enhanced 9-1-1 calling system, the operator will have a general idea of your location. So, even if you are unable to speak, help can be on its way.

The dispatch operator will gather general information such as your name, your location, and a number they can reach you if you should be disconnected. They will verify the nature of your emergency so that they know which service to send. Often times Police, Fire and Rescue will be sent even if you only asked for one. Because time is of the essence in an emergency and you never know what resources you will need, they are always prepared. Often, the dispatcher will try to keep you on the line for as long as possible or until help arrives. This keeps them current on the situation so they can provide real-time feedback to those on the way. While on the phone with you, they are contacting the appropriate agency, giving them your location and the nature of the call. Stay as calm as possible to provide the information that is requested. Turn on a light or create some other way to indicate your location, open the doors, and provide as clear a path as possible to the patient.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 7.02.32 AM

(Hoague, 2011)

Of course when an emergency happens, volunteers could be asleep at home. They live normal, everyday lives just like you. Even so, they get up, get dressed and head out the door to the station to hop on a fire truck or ambulance and respond to the call. There is no time to fix your hair and your make up or for brushing your teeth. The emergency responders just get in and go. So when it feels like it took them “forever” to reach you,  in reality it took maybe ten minutes or less.

When they arrive at your location, they first check for safety, both theirs and yours. They are not doing anyone any good if they or their equipment are in danger. They ask lots of questions. They are using their training and experience to ensure the care they are providing is fast and effective. In some cases all is well and they can leave the scene without further action. Other times, the bring your husband who’s having a heart attack to the hospital, or give your child life-saving oxygen when they’re not breathing. Maybe they just cut you out of a vehicle because you crashed into a ditch and were trapped. Maybe they put out a fire in your chimney that saved the rest of your house.

Think for a moment: What would happen if these people who are not being paid to save lives and property didn’t volunteer? If Mr. or Ms. Firefighter didn’t want to get up in the middle of the night because he or she has work in the morning? What if that paramedic really wanted to hang out tonight at a friend’s party? Who was going to come? What if it wasn’t ten minutes it took them to respond? What if they decided they didn’t want to miss dinner tonight with the kids, or wanted to finish the movie they were watching, so it took them an hour or three hours to respond to your emergency? What would happen then?

 (Richards, 2011, December 20)

To become a volunteer EMT in Vermont you must apply and be accepted by a department. You have to pass at least 110 hours of training to be an EMT Basic, and then there’s your station training. You must be CPR certified, at least 18 years old, have clear or corrected vision, you must not be color blind, you must be able to lift or carry heavy objects, you must be in fit physical condition, you have to be emotionally stable, and you generally have to have completed high school or have obtained a GED. Once you have met these requirements, you can train for 6-12 months. You must pass both a written and a physical test. (AMR, n.d.)

Volunteer fire service has similar requirements and can vary by department. For every half-dozen or so recruits, maybe one stays on following the long training requirements. It used to take 45 hours to train a firefighter; now it takes 250 to 260 hours. (Gardner, 2015, July 30) In addition to all of this, volunteers attend weekly and monthly trainings and meetings to stay up to date.

What makes someone want to volunteer in EMS?  There may be a small stipend, but there is no pay, there are no benefits like 401k and vacation days, just a lot of time invested in training and responding to calls. There are missed holidays, skipped dinner dates and birthday parties. There are sleepless nights and aching backs. There are few thanks and no tangible rewards. So why do it?

One of the biggest benefits to the volunteer is the educational opportunities. That training that could make you more valuable to employers. Also, there is a sense of giving back to one’s community. Volunteering in general “strengthens your community” and “encourages civic responsibility,” while it “promotes personal growth and self esteem.” Volunteers gain and share knowledge of local resources, which helps solve community needs. (Community service, 2015) Volunteering also “can boost endorphins, those ‘feel-good’ brain cells that keep your heart pumping, your mind sharp, and your immune system working. They also help lower stress.” (Do your brain, 2014)

What does someone gain from being an EMS volunteer that is not tangible? There’s the emotional satisfaction of helping people at some of the worst times of their lives. You become connected to your community and the members of your organization. You become part of what is referred to as “the brotherhood.” The theory of the brotherhood in EMS is strong. (J.Burdick, personal communication, 2015)

The ‘brotherhood’ is unwritten, unspoken . . . it’s knowing what we go through on a personal level and the respect given to each other. In social settings we are the “fun” crowd maybe because we appreciate life more, we know that if you face death and come out ok. Every gathering is a reason to celebrate. (J.Leete, personal communication, 2015)

In being a volunteer in emergency services, you deal with every type of personality. Some times you are a therapist more than a care giver. On some occasions you have to have a level of compassion just shy of saint hood, while at other times you have to shake people back to reality. (Mcleod, 2007)

As a community organization, volunteer agencies often do things as a group to give back even further. There are bake sales, community awareness events, touch-a-truck days, open houses. Members participate in community walks and raise funds and awareness for important causes.

HOPE picture

(Leete, 2013, October)

Everyone is affected at one time or another by volunteer emergency medical services.  You may need them or you know someone who has needed them. When you hear and see the lights and sirens, stop, pull over, and let them pass. When you see them out and about, thank them for their service. You never know what type of call they just came from, if they are missing their child’s birthday party (AGAIN), if they had to cancel that date with their significant other (AGAIN) to respond to a call at your house or to the auto accident your teenager was just in. Realize they are human beings just like you, they have jobs and families just like you, they have horrific encounters and they have save-the-day moments just like you, and they continue to do it day-in and day-out. And if you can, please volunteer, you never know who’s life you might save.


American Medical Response (AMR). (n.d.) Paramedic and EMT training. Retrieved from

Community service: Top 10 reasons to volunteer. (2015). Retrieved from

Do your brain a favor – volunteer! (2014). Retrieved from

Gardner, T. (2015, July 30). Rescue, fire agencies need more help. Stowe Reporter. Retrieved from

Hoague, R. (Photographer). (2013). In appreciation of EMS. Retrieved from

How to become a volunteer firefighter. (2015). Retrieved from

Leete, C. (Photographer). (2013, October). CCVFC, making strides against breast cancer walk.

Mcleod, S. (2007). Psychodynamic approach. Retrieved from

Richards, M. (2011, December 20). Colchester Center volunteer fire company 2011. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Sanders, B. (2007, November 12). Volunteer firefighters need support. Times-Argus & Rutland Herald, Op-Ed. Retrieved from

Spanier, I. Fuchs, M. Bachieda, F., and Martinez. G. (2012). Local heroes: Portraits of American volunteer firefighters. Retrieved from

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APA cite in text as: (Leete, 2015)

APA cite in full References as: Leete, C. (2015). Volunteer emergency medical services in Vermont. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from

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cheri picCheri Leete: I moved to Vermont in 2008. I have two beautiful and talented daughters. I was a data analyst for years, but this work did not make me happy so I changed careers, took a job at an area hospital, and went back to school. On target to work toward an RN degree. In my spare time I love to read and I enjoy watching movies.