A heavy rescue truck and an ambulance sit outside the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. Beginning as a one-ambulance department in 1937, the Rescue Squad now has over 150 professionally trained volunteers.

A heavy rescue truck and an ambulance sit outside the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. Beginning as a one-ambulance department in 1937, the Rescue Squad now has over 150 professionally trained volunteers.

Volunteer fire and emergency medical services are an integral part of regional public safety. More than 60% of Maryland’s firefighters and more than 70% of Virginia’s are volunteers, according to the National Fire Department Registry from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But, like any volunteer organization, local emergency services teams face challenges in recruitment, retention and funding.

What does it take to be a volunteer firefighter or emergency medical technician, and what issues do local volunteer fire departments deal with? We’ll hear from two volunteers, including the Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year from Vienna, Virginia.

Produced by Cydney Grannan


  • John Morrison Fire Chief, Vienna Volunteer Fire Department; @John_C_Morrison
  • Ashley Donovan Secretary of the Board of Directors and Emergency Medical Technician, Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad; @BCCRS


  • 12:38:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Giving back to your community can take many forms. Some people volunteer at soup kitchens. Others spend their time at animal shelters. But some people decide to go through hundreds of hours of training and pull regular all-nighters so that they can assist people in medical emergencies and save people trapped in burning buildings. I'm talking, of course, about volunteer fire fighters and EMTs.

  • 12:38:22

    KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss volunteer emergency services in the region is John Morrison. He is the fire chief of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department. He was named the 2019 Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. John Morrison, congratulations and welcome.

  • 12:38:39

    JOHN MORRISONThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:38:41

    NNAMDIAshley Donovan is the secretary on the board of directors for the Bethesda Chevy Case Rescue Squad. And she is a volunteer emergency medical technician, or EMT. Ashley Donovan, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:38:52

    ASHLEY DONOVANThanks for having me.

  • 12:38:53

    NNAMDIJohn Morrison, before we dive in, we originally had this show scheduled for the beginning of September, but we postponed it because you were called down to the Bahamas to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Tell us about the work you did there and the taskforce that you were a part of.

  • 12:39:07

    MORRISONSo, I'm a member of Virginia Taskforce One, which is Fairfax County's urban search and rescue program. And we are one of 28 FEMA-sponsored search and rescue teams in the country. And of those 28, we're one of two that are sponsored by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, to respond internationally on behalf of the U.S. government. So, after Hurricane Dorian, we responded to the Bahamas, and we were there for about 10 days helping the Bohemian government in their rescue and recovery efforts.

  • 12:39:34

    NNAMDIWhat's the difference between career firefighters versus volunteer firefighters, and how do both volunteers and career firefighters work together?

  • 12:39:42

    MORRISONIt really depends on the area within the region. Training-wise, I think across the entire area, everybody's trained to the exact same level, both career and volunteer. Otherwise, it's just a level of commitment. So, obviously, I have a full-time job. All my volunteers have full-time jobs, and we do this on nights and weekends and when the county needs us, as sort of a search support, the way Fairfax County works. So, it really depends, region to region.

  • 12:40:12

    NNAMDIYour day job is as an IT project manager, is my understanding. Correct?

  • 12:40:15

    MORRISONThat's correct, for a federal IT contractor.

  • 12:40:18

    NNAMDIAshley Donovan, you're part of the Bethesda Chevy Chase rescue squad. What's the difference between a rescue squad and a fire station?

  • 12:40:24

    DONOVANYeah, so the terminology can be a little confusing. So, our rescue squad has a heavy rescue truck. So, that's sort of a big tool box on wheels and has lots of really specialized equipment. You might see, if we run a big Beltway call or an interstate call, we may respond, to have that more advanced equipment. So, any sort of hydraulics, we have generators. We have spreaders, in case you need the what are known as jaws of life, so to actually rescue a person from a car. Our rescue squad is there to really rescue people. That's its primary function.

  • 12:40:53

    DONOVANWe don't have a fire truck, but the rescue squad does have basic fire suppression capabilities. But, usually, we have -- or our station has two what are called basic life support ambulances and advanced life support ambulance and the rescue squad.

  • 12:41:08

    NNAMDIHow many volunteers do you have and how does your team integrate with career firefighters and first responders in Montgomery County?

  • 12:41:14

    DONOVANSo, we are integrated in the Montgomery County system. We have anywhere between 150 and 200 active volunteer EMTs and firefighters, so we are a very large station. We have a terrific volunteer cohort. We also have a small number of paid day staff, so they're paid through the rescue squad. They're not actually county personnel. They're paid by the rescue squad. But we frequently run calls with county personnel, and we always work as a team. And, again, as John mentioned, we have the same level of training. We go through the same EMT and fire training as an actual county personnel would.

  • 12:41:46

    NNAMDIThe rescue squad also serves some parts of northwest D.C., doesn't it?

  • 12:41:50

    DONOVANWe do. So, again, we are dispatched in Montgomery County, as any other Montgomery County station would be. We also respond to Upper Northwest D.C.. So for our D.C. listeners you can actually call us directly at 301-652-1000. And if you need an ambulance, we can respond to you. You can see a map of our response area at our website, at bccrs.org, if you want more information.

  • 12:42:12

    NNAMDII live in Upper Northwest. I might be calling you, at some point.

  • 12:42:14

    DONOVANWe are actually in our response area. The studio is in our response area.

  • 12:42:17

    NNAMDIThere you go. John Morrison , does D.C. have any volunteer first-responders of its own?

  • 12:42:22

    DONOVANNot that I'm aware of, in terms of actual providers running calls.

  • 12:42:25

    NNAMDIJohn Morrison, how did you get your start as a volunteer firefighter?

  • 12:42:28

    MORRISONSo, I started when I was 16 years old. So, I've been around a little while. I took a tour from the Boy Scouts at the firehouse when I was about 14 or 15 years old, and it just sort of stuck with me. So, when I turned 16, I showed up at the firehouse door, got an application, and the rest is sort of history.

  • 12:42:46

    NNAMDISo, you started out by essentially chasing fire trucks, didn't you? (laugh)

  • 12:42:49

    MORRISONYeah, I mean, I couldn't drive, but I would certainly be on a baseball field sort of watching the fire truck go by, instead of watching the baseball.

  • 12:42:56

    NNAMDIAshley, what about you? Why did you first decide to become a volunteer EMT?

  • 12:43:00

    DONOVANYeah, my path is a little unusual. After I finished my PhD a few years ago, a friend and I actually ran across the United States, believe it or not, and we wanted to hear from local communities. And we found that the local fire stations were always really great places to hear what was going on in the community. They are the people that are out there responding to, you know, the crises in the area.

  • 12:43:20

    DONOVANAnd so it was always really productive, interesting conversations. I loved all the volunteers that I met, and seeing the diverse, you know, backgrounds that they had and thought, okay, this is an environment that I'd like to be in. And it's a great way to be able to help your neighbors in, you know, one of their worst days.

  • 12:43:34

    NNAMDIAnd they never said, look, here are these two people running across the entire country, stopping at our local fire station to question...

  • 12:43:41

    DONOVAN(laugh) Yes, they definitely said that, with puzzled looks on their faces.

  • 12:43:44

    NNAMDII thought as much. John, what's the training like to become a volunteer firefighter? Is it different for volunteer firefighters than career firefighters?

  • 12:43:51

    MORRISONNo, it's the exact same training. So, we just do ours on nights and weekends. So, the way it works in Fairfax is, if you would like to become an EMT, you join, you go through our background check, do a physical to make sure you're up for the job. Go through some orientation training, and then you'll go to about a three or four-month EMT school, which is held on nights and weekends. And it's about 150 hours or so of EMT training.

  • 12:44:14

    MORRISONThen, if you want to go on and become a firefighter, it's several hundred hours more, and over about six months or so. And it's a big time commitment. I mean, during that time period, you know, we in Fairfax do it Tuesday and Thursday nights, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. So, your extracurricular activities sort of go out the window, because you really don't have any time available.

  • 12:44:35

    NNAMDIAshley, how about for EMTs or paramedics at Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad? What's the training process like?

  • 12:44:41

    DONOVANYeah, very similar. It's the same level of training as career personnel would get. In Montgomery County, I would say nowadays it's about 200 hours of training for an EMT. To go on to become a paramedic, that's essentially a full, academic year course. That's a very intensive period. And, as John mentioned, to do the fire work is similarly another kind of semester-long course.

  • 12:44:59

    DONOVANOur personnel that ride the heavy rescue squad, they are EMTs, as well as firefighters. So, you may see what you think are firefighters responding to a call for a medical emergency. They're trained EMTs, so they know exactly how to respond in that environment, as well.

  • 12:45:14

    NNAMDIWith any volunteer organization, recruiting and retaining volunteers is a big issue. Is it challenging to recruit new volunteer firefighters and EMTs? How do you get people interested in volunteering, especially given the large time commitment? I'll start with you, Ashley.

  • 12:45:28

    DONOVANSure. So, I'm delighted, actually, to be here today. A couple weeks ago, we launched a new initiative. It's a live-in program that offers a nominal stipend for volunteers. So, if you're interested, and you have the ability to actually live at a fire station or live at the rescue squad, you can get up to a thousand dollars per quarter if you're willing to commit to staffing four nights a week. So, that is not an insignificant commitment. It's a very heavy commitment, but it's one way that we want to sort of try out: how do we get some really qualified people into our station able to staff our units from day one?

  • 12:45:58

    DONOVANSo, this is a program for people who have a bit more advanced qualifications. So, someone like an ambulance driver or someone who's already qualified to ride the rescue squad. Again, you can learn more at our website at bccrs.org. But just launched a couple weeks ago, and we already have a number of people interested.

  • 12:46:14

    NNAMDIBut that incentive underscores the challenge, John Morrison, the challenge of recruiting new volunteer firefighters and EMTs. How do you deal with that?

  • 12:46:21

    MORRISONYeah, you know, it's definitely a challenge. And retention is also a significant issue. If we can get several years out of somebody, three to four years, we consider that fairly successful. You know, we were talking before the show, and one of the things that the challenge is, especially now that we have a lot of families that are dual income, when you have a kid or you have job challenges, something that is voluntary sort of is the first thing to go. And so by promoting inclusiveness and providing an environment where people feel like they can succeed where they have a path forward to lead a nonprofit and to help their own community sort of engages them in that retention effort.

  • 12:47:00

    NNAMDIWell, Ashley, you were born in Washington, D.C. Is that correct?

  • 12:47:03

    DONOVANI was, yeah.

  • 12:47:04

    NNAMDIBut the fact is that this is an area where a lot of people come and go fairly frequently. Is that a part of the challenge of recruiting volunteers?

  • 12:47:11

    DONOVANAbsolutely, recruiting and retaining, I would say. So, the demographics of our volunteers are changing over time. And we're in an area just outside of D.C., but in Bethesda, where you do have people coming in and out of jobs. So, we want to make sure that we are, you know, as John was saying, getting a few years out of someone. That sounds a little crude, but we consider that a success.

  • 12:47:29

    DONOVANBut we also want to be as flexible as we can be. So, you know, we're looking at ways of how can we work with people and engage with volunteers, maybe not at our nominal one-night-a-week commitment. Do we need to be thinking about other ways to have volunteers come in the door? We don't have all the answers, but it's something that we're certainly looking at, as the environment changes.

  • 12:47:48

    NNAMDIWhat's types of people typically volunteer, and how do you approach issues of diversity? Firefighters, in particular, tend to have a reputation of being mostly white and mostly male.

  • 12:47:57

    MORRISONYeah, as I said, here's a white male. Yeah, absolutely. (laugh) Yeah, it certainly is an issue, and we try to recruit to look like our community. You know, one of the things that we did -- and it was probably about 15 years ago -- is we went to an EMS-only program where you used to have to be a firefighter and an EMT. And we realized that that did prohibit a large amount of volunteers from coming in.

  • 12:48:19

    MORRISONSo, we have an EMS-only program where you can just be an EMT. And what that's allowed us to do, is a lot more females tend to -- we have, I think, about 40 percent of our EMTs in our station are female, which is not nearly enough, but it's a good start. And we're still working on the firefighting aspect, to bring more female firefighters in. And what we found, at least in our station, is when we get females through our firefighter program, they end up wanting to do it as a career, which is great for them. And they go off and become a firefighter full-time. But it sort of hurts our organization, because we don't retain them for longer than they go through that training.

  • 12:48:55

    NNAMDISame question to you, Ashley.

  • 12:48:55

    DONOVANYeah, very similar opportunities and challenges. Typically, we have about 30 to 40 percent of our active call-running members are female. And that's split between both the EMS side and the heavy rescue squad. And I'm delighted that we have a number of females that regularly come in and ride on the rescue squad. So, that's a really cool thing to see. I think coming up here in the next few months, we're going to have our first, that I'm aware of, female rescue squad driver. So, that'll be a really neat thing to see.

  • 12:49:21

    NNAMDIWell, we're talking about recruitment and retention, so I think you'll both like to hear from Avery in Potomac, Maryland. Avery, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:29

    AVERYHi, Kojo. Great show. I think it's a great show, because I'm a new EMT. I just got my state and national certification a few months ago. I'm an EMT, and I ride the ambulance at Cabin John, just down the road from Bethesda. And I got my certification at 74. And I've been told I'm the oldest person ever to get initial certification for EMT service in Montgomery County.

  • 12:50:00

    AVERYWhat I want to do regarding recruiting and also retention is to make a pitch to retirees. There are a lot of -- if you can hack the physical, there is no reason that somebody 55, 60, 65, 70, or in my case, 74, or maybe older, can't bring a different kind of experience to the ambulance, be around for a pretty long time and bring a different sort of care, different life experiences to the whole thing, then.

  • 12:50:36

    AVERYEven the most dedicated 16 or 18 year olds. I love our younger members. They're wonderful, but as your guests have been saying, they come and they go. They go to college. Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they don't. And here we have this core of people who believe that 70 is the new 50, so what...

  • 12:50:56

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Avery, there's a lot of nodding heads in this studio right here, so thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you. Another big challenge you face is funding. While you're not paid, you have expensive equipment to maintain. Where does your funding come from, and what do you need that money to pay for?

  • 12:51:12

    MORRISONYeah. So, at Vienna, we own the physical fire station itself along with all the apparatus with it. And a fire truck, a fire engine costs around 600 and something thousand, $650,000. And an ambulance now is around 200 or so thousand, maybe a little bit more, 250. So, it's vastly expensive. So, we do a lot of community engagement. So, we have a bingo program every Sunday night and, you know, when you think about firehouse bingo, you know, it's that sort of environment.

  • 12:51:39

    MORRISONWe do an annual fund drive to our residents of the town of Vienna and the surrounding areas, as well as, you know, whatever we can figure out. You know, we do get a small stipend from the town of Vienna, which is nice. So, we sort of try to diversify our funding streams because, you know, you just want to have that sort of breadth of funding coming in.

  • 12:51:58

    NNAMDISame question to you, Ashley.

  • 12:52:00

    DONOVANYeah. So, I'll take a moment and thank all the generous donors who may be listening who've contributed to BCC. We really appreciate it. We do rely on the community. That is the majority of our fundraising efforts. A couple years ago, believe it or not, for many, many years, we used to ask our volunteers to go to every house in our first new response area to ask for funds. And we decided a couple years ago, at a sort of board level, this wasn't really the right way to go about fundraising.

  • 12:52:27

    DONOVANAnd so we made a dramatic change, and now we do much more email campaigns, more direct mail campaigns, other ways of engaging directly with the community. And so we're seeing a change in terms of the income that we're getting, but, you know, we're sort of streamlining the process and trying to figure that out. We also apply for grants. John and I were talking about that earlier. There are some opportunities for actual grants. But, yeah, similar challenges, I think, across the board at all stations.

  • 12:52:51

    NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, but I wanted to get Sharon in Alexandria, Virginia in. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:57

    SHARONHi. I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about the function of the EMT training as a steppingstone on a ladder that can get you from that place to becoming a PA or a nurse, the qualifications that you can get with respect to mortgage assistance from HUD as a good neighbor. There are so many great things that can happen to somebody who chooses to keep training.

  • 12:53:22

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Okay. Here's Ashley. (laugh)

  • 12:53:24

    DONOVANYes, thanks for the question. So, we certainly have a lot of people who are interested. You know, if they're in high school, they're interested in going to medical school. We have to be able to balance out, as we were discussing earlier, how much time are they really going to be able to commit. It's certainly a valuable experience, I think, for anybody. I've learned, you know, so many life lessons by doing this, and I have absolutely no medical training, you know, prior to being an EMT. But it certainly is a great way to get some kind of clinical, hands-on experience if you're interested in more advanced medical training.

  • 12:53:50

    NNAMDIKate tweets: my 21-year-old son is a volunteer EMT in Bethesda. He trained for almost a year, paid for extra training, and now is experienced enough to ride. He's already saved some lives. These young people volunteering are a complete inspiration and a joy. He is there every Friday night, so you see it can clearly go from youth to retirement age. But I'm afraid that's all the time we have. John Morrison, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:54:12

    MORRISONThank you for having me.

  • 12:54:13

    NNAMDIAshley Donovan, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:54:14

    DONOVANThank you.

  • 12:54:15

    NNAMDIThat's it for today's show. This segment was produced by Cydney Grannan, and our conversation about youth mental health and suicides was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, why are gifting economies making a comeback? And we'll have a look at how neighborhood walkability can determine a child's success. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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