I was a member of a local volunteer fire company for 23 years beginning in 1971.

During that time I responded to an estimated 3,200 calls for emergency assistance, so recalling each of those pleas for help sort of runs together.

I decided to become a volunteer for one reason: I grew up in a Pennsylvania town served by five volunteer companies, and I thought the absolutely coolest thing in the world was to jump in a car, respond to that blaring siren, climb onto the back of a pumper and race to a fire.

It was a decision that I have never regretted, and one that was cloaked in good intentions, but which also came with unplanned consequences.

That jumping on the back of a fire truck was, and will always be, thrilling. But it wasn’t very many years later that volunteer leaders began mandating that helmets and turnout gear be worn when riding on the tailboards of the apparatus.

Another skill that is very often overlooked when riding on the back of a racing fire truck is learning to bounce with the bumps. You are literally bounced up in the air sometimes, so having a firm grip on the rails is not only recommended, but life-saving!

And if you’re considering joining a fire department, be prepared to be unselfish with your free time. Volunteers routinely train every week, every month of every year, which takes a major hit on a person’s spare time.

Then there are the meetings, fundraisers, fire schools and refresher classes heaped on top of responding to the calls, all of which competes with family time, work time and the rare holiday meal spent without a blaring siren interruption.

My company also provided emergency medical services which, in 1993, accounted for about 70% of our runs. It was mandated that every member of an ambulance crew have a minimum certification of CPR, and that every attendant involved in patient care needed to be certified in first aid, preferably as an emergency medical technician.

More training, more classes, more skills, more accountability, more time away from families.

Broken families are never anticipated, but an unfortunately predictable reality, including my own. While volunteering in the fire or rescue service is hugely exciting and rewarding to us, our family members just see empty chairs when they really wanted to see us.

Being a member of any volunteer organization requires a commitment of time and energy, but none more so than emergency services. Going to a weekly meeting for a service organization is a commitment.

But rolling out of bed at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, spending two hours or more rendering emergency care, or extricating human beings from twisted piles of metal, then working all day with a half-full tank of energy goes way beyond a mere commitment.

We volunteers periodically received “atta-boys” — complimentary pats on our backs from our fellow first responders — and we always appreciated the thanks.

But the recognition we all lived for came from grateful survivors of house fires that left them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, or a little child thanking us for the stuffed animal we rescued for them.

Every now and then we might run into a patient or family member we met while treating one of their loved ones for a heart attack, and their hugs were all the thanks we ever needed. That’s what kept us going.

I’ve been out of emergency services for more than 20 years now (an avocation much better suited for young people), but I still get the urge every now and then to jump in my car when I hear a siren. It was the most rewarding, the most satisfying thing I have ever done with my time, and it will always have an allure for me.

To the many hundreds of firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and assorted lifesavers in our region, I say thank you for devoting such a huge chunk of your lives to keeping us all safe and our homes protected. You are, and always will be, our most beloved heroes.

As one who has walked in your boots, I say life in our corner of the world would never be as beautiful without you.

Bill Crawford is a LaVale freelance writer. His column appears in the Times-News on alternate weekends.

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