All Work, No Pay

With their lives on the line, the volunteer fire fighters of Long Island may not be earning a paycheck, but their deeper sense of community is reward enough.

Story and Photos by Emma Butz

“A fire that’s burning does not know whether it’s being fought by a paid firefighter or a volunteer firefighter. It doesn’t care.” Chief John Skelly, a 55-year-old volunteer firefighter has been with the Uniondale fire department since he was a kid.

“I started as junior firefighter in 1977, then joined the department in ’81,” Skelly adds. “I’ve been here for a long time, but I’m still just a volunteer.”

Out of the 213 fire departments in Long Island, the City of Long Beach is the only one that pays its firemen. The rest operate solely on volunteer work.

Skelly says, “[people] start coming in for the sake of volunteering and being part of the community…we can train them to become whatever they want to be in the fire service industry.”

Francisco Soto, a 37-year-old Fire Captain for Uniondale talks about the importance of training. He says, “the worst thing would be to get put in a bad scenario. So that comes with your training, cause if you aren’t trained to do something you shouldn’t be doing it.” Soto adds, “That’s why when you first come in you don’t just put on the uniform and we give you the hose and say alright you go into the building now.”

Training for volunteer firefighters in Nassau County include a mandatory program, ranging from two weeks to six months. Trainees learn things like fire safety, how to handle equipment, manage fire gear, rescue and recovery practices, and the best ways to combat a fire.

“There’s a lot of guys that have worked here and then joined jobs to become paid firefighters in the city.” Skelly states, “they become FDNY EMT’s, they become firefighters at FDNY, sometimes police, whatever the case may be.”

Jose Guerra, a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter who has been with the Town of Hempstead for over four months now states, “Hempstead is a busy place. It’s only a few months in to the year and we’ve already had 300 or 400 calls. We average about 1,700 a year.”

Not every call the fire departments get are for a major fire, but when they do get a call for one, they’re ready.

Guerra says, “When we get a call, that’s my adrenaline rush. I get to a point where I’m not thinking of it as dangerous. I just want to get there first, get the nozzle first, and go.”

In 2018, Hempstead had 29 working fires. A working fire is defined by firemen as a “fire where at least one hose line must be stretched and operated; everyone is working with all hands on-deck.”

Despite a heavy majority of the volunteer firefighters in Long Island having to work two or three other jobs in order to support themselves, they are still at the fire house whenever they can be.

Chris Yanes, another 21-year-old volunteer at Hempstead’s fire department has been there for almost 9 months now. He states, “I sleep here all the time. This is my first home. My actual home is my second home.” Yanes has a job at the hospital in Mineola where he gets paid in order to make ends meet. “If I’m not there, nine out of ten times, I’m usually here. I still come in seven days a week.” Yanes says.

Chief Skelly discusses the hidden challenges of volunteer work and says, “I think the biggest problem with getting volunteers in Nassau county, and on long island, is that the young kids aren’t staying here because it’s so expensive to live here.” He adds, “It used to be where you could work Monday through Friday at a nine to five job and that was it. Now everyone is working rotating shifts, weekends, nights, or they got to work multiple jobs.”

While the rise in cost of living worries many people in Nassau and Suffolk county, the fire departments notices it more and more every year.

“If you own a house in Nassau county or Suffolk county, you got to have a two-income family. That’s the only way you can afford it.” Skelly states and continues with, “So, our problem with getting volunteers is getting the young folks to stay.”

One of Uniondale’s young firefighters, Onisha Nichols, a 26-year-old volunteer, discovered her love of volunteering in high school while working with a non-profit. On top of being with the fire department, she says “I actually have two other jobs that support me. My main full-time job is that I work for a non-profit that helps to improve the lives for people with mental health issues.” Other volunteering positions she holds include: being a trustee on the library board for Uniondale and working on a non-profit organization that she founded herself.

While volunteer firefighters across the Island vary in class, race, gender, and age, they are likely to have one thing in common.

Nichols says, “I would say being a volunteer takes a large amount of selflessness. To be able to dedicate yourself to an organization like a fire department where you’re up at all times of the night, during the day, and away from your family, there’s a large amount of selflessness there.”

Similarly, Yanes states, “It’s time consuming, if it’s three o’clock in the morning and there’s a house on fire, it takes a certain type of guy to wake up and walk into a building that’s on fire.”

In the 23 active years that Skelly has been with the fire department, he has never lost his sense of wonder. “You never stop wondering. It’s always fun. It’s always something new, there’s never any two fires or calls the same. It’s a lot of work, but its enjoyable.”

While Chief Skelly may love what he does, he warns about the work involved with being a volunteer firefighter, “The fire dept is NOT for everybody. There are members that join that are interested or intrigued that don’t really know what they are getting in to, but they come because they have all the right intentions of joining and being a part of this. Then they realize this isn’t for them.” He continues with, “And that’s fine. The fire service isn’t for everybody.”

Those that do, however, find themselves head over heels for this line of work, not only love the brotherhood it creates, but feel that volunteering is what make it more enjoyable. When Nichols was asked on whether she would want to be paid or not, she said, “Never, ever, ever. The reason that I say that is because you know, I think that this is something that I find a lot of joy in. and I feel that things kind of get twisted once you change the dynamic and go into the employment side of it.” She adds that, “I guess that would take the fun out of it, or the excitement out if it. You’re still helping of course but there’s a lot to be said about doing something that you can’t get paid back for.”

Skelly emphasized the dedication his volunteers have for the fire house and says, “we’re on call all the time. We all carry pagers, so we could be at the store doing some shopping and if the pager goes off and we’re available to go, then we go.”

Yanes assures that he isn’t in this for money either. He says, “I like to be called a hero, but I’m a hard worker before anything else. Even if I do it for free.”

At the end of their day, the life of a volunteer firefighter is all work, no pay.

Maybe the old saying still reigns true: If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.