Anne Nesbit became a volunteer with the Key Peninsula Fire Department in early 2008 after meeting some firefighters at the Key Peninsula Community Fair in 2007. She had “a lifelong love affair with fire departments, just like any kid,” she said. The fire personnel at the fair’s recruiting booth told her she would be good at the work. “At the time, I had one kid on my hip and another I was trying to hang on to, and thought, ‘Yeah, right,’” she said. .
She later met a battalion chief at an open house and he, too, encouraged her to apply, telling her how he would “teach me how to drive a fire engine.” That clinched it for her and Nesbit applied. Despite his enthusiasm, she was sure nothing would come of her application. Now she is the volunteer battalion chief for the department.
Ten years joining, Nesbit—or Chief “Mom,” as her firefighters call her—is running what many have called a model group of volunteers. Most of those who serve—or have served—in the department have plans to move on to career positions, some as firefighters or paramedics for local departments or for the Department of Natural Resources. A large percentage of volunteers are successful in making that move due in large part to the training they receive on the Key Peninsula.
“Volunteers in our department have a unique situation,” Nesbit said. “They get to do everything the career guys get to do and that’s a great training opportunity for the volunteers who want to gain experience before applying to fire departments for career positions.”
Volunteers respond alongside career firefighters to motor vehicle accidents, medical calls and structure fires. There is no difference on a call in status or workload for volunteers and paid firefighters. “Because our Key Peninsula stations are so short of manpower, our volunteers get to do it all,” Nesbit said.
She broke down the personnel coverage by station: Station 44 in Wauna and Station 47 in Home are staffed 24/7 by career firefighters. Station 46 in Key Center is a “day station,” and also houses the administrative offices for the department. Station 45 in Vaughn and Station 49 in Longbranch are staffed when the department has enough career personnel to provide continuous coverage.
The department is always looking for more volunteers. “The best part of our department is that we do community outreach; we offer the career firefighters healthy competition, which keeps us all sharp; we get along great and are part of the team,” Nesbit said.
There are currently 14 fully qualified volunteer firefighters, six of whom are emergency medical technicians. If all nine of the new recruits pass their academy training, the number will grow to 23. Nesbit is proud of the fact that all of her qualified volunteers are actively serving. “There is no dead weight,” she said.
The volunteers in the department are not all men. When Nesbit joined 10 years ago, she was the only woman in the unit. There are now two women qualified and another in the current academy. Recruitment begins in September and the academy takes place at Station 46 in Key Center.
The requirements to apply are simple: be a high school graduate, live within a 10-minute radius of a station, complete the application and pass a background check confirming no felonies or misdemeanors within the last seven years. After the initial application, candidates must pass a written test, a board interview, a medical exam, a physical fitness test and an interview with the fire chief.
Jerry Marsh has been a volunteer with the department for 44 years as a tender operator, the person responsible for getting water to the fire engines on the scene. He said all the tests and interviews are important because, as volunteers, “what you say and what you do can affect the wellbeing of the person you’re trying to help. Compassion is required.”
Laura Soares, who has been a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the department for just over a year, agreed with Marsh. “I want to be the one to respond when someone’s having their worst day,” she said.
“Volunteers have a different heart,” Nesbit said. When she went through her academy training, she was challenged by the opportunity and excited to be a part of the team. It wasn’t long before she realized something else. “It had been a really long time (since I did) something that was just for me,” she said. “The fire department did that for me–it filled a need I didn’t even know was there.”