Volunteer firefighters contrast with career firefighters, who work full-time and receive a full salary. Some volunteer firefighters may be part of a combination fire department that employs both full-time and volunteer firefighters.
In some communities, the definition of a volunteer firefighter includes those who receive some pay for being on call and/or attending emergencies, known in other countries as "retained" firefighters. Volunteer and retained firefighters are expected to be on call to respond to emergency calls for long periods of time, and are summoned to the fire station when their services are needed. They are also expected to attend other non-emergency duties as well (training, fundraising, equipment maintenance, etc.).
The first volunteer fire department in Argentina was Bomberos Voluntarios de La Boca (La Boca Volunteer Firemen) founded on June 2, 1884, by Italian immigrant Tomas Liberti in the neighborhood of La Boca, Buenos Aires. June 2 is the Day of Volunteer Firefighters. The Argentina Federation of Volunteer Firefighters was founded in 1954. In 2018, 80% of the country is covered by volunteers.
Throughout Australia there are many volunteer firefighting agencies which are set up by the individual states or territories. New South Wales is serviced by two statutory firefighting authorities. These are the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) and Fire and Rescue NSW. Fire and Rescue NSW has firefighting and rescue responsibilities for the major cities, metropolitan areas and several other towns in NSW. It also has the responsibility for all land based HAZMAT incidents as well as inland waterway based HAZMAT incidents. The NSWRFS is the volunteer firefighting service in NSW and consists of over 70,000 volunteers and has responsibility for over 90% of the land area in NSW. Although most of this is bush and grass land, the NSWRFS also serve smaller and regional communities that are not covered by Fire and Rescue NSW. Despite some overlapping in firefighting coverage/resources by both services, the NSWRFS does not provide rescue or HAZMAT services in the State.
In Victoria, there are three main fire fighting organisations, Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFB), Country Fire Authority (CFA) and The Department of Environment, Water, Land, and Planning (DEWLP). The CFA is a volunteer and community based fire and emergency services organisation that is made up of around 61,000 members. Of these members, some 59,000 are volunteers. Their roles range from fire, rescue, HAZMAT, to non-operational support roles.
In Western Australia, fire fighting is organised by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) together with Local Councils. DFES operate the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service Brigades (VFRS) and some Bush Fire Service Brigades (BFS), while the remainder of the Bush Fire Service Brigades are trained by DFES, but operated and administrated by the Council of the associated area. VFRS Brigades are generally more involved in Structural Fire fighting, Asset Protection and Road Crash Rescue depending on their location, whereas the BFS Brigades are generally more involved in Wildfire Fighting. In Western Australia there is an estimated 31,000 BFS Members among 585 Brigades, and 2,000 VFRS Members among 88 Brigades.
In South Australia, there are two legislated fire fighting organisations. The South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (SAMFS) and the South Australian Country Fire Service (SACFS). The SACFS is staffed by approximately 13,500 volunteer fire fighters and around 120 paid employees.
Volunteer fire departments (Freiwillige Feuerwehr) provide the majority (97% of all German fire fighters) of Austria's and Germany's civil protection services, alongside other volunteer organizations like the Germany Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), voluntary ambulance services and emergency medical or rescue services like German Red Cross or Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe. In most rural fire departments, the staff consists only of volunteers. The members of these departments are usually on-call 24/7 and working in other professions.
The alarm can be performed by different alarm systems, such as by sirens or pager. In Germany, the alarm via radio pager is on the frequencies of the BOS radio. In Austria, the fire departments have their own frequencies.
In medium-sized cities and communities, fire departments will often be partially staffed by career firefighters. They ensure the rapid availability of some of the department's fire apparatus, with the remaining apparatus staffed and brought to the scene of the emergency by volunteers as soon as they arrive at the department.
Larger cities, typically those with 100,000 inhabitants or more, will operate fire departments staffed entirely by career firefighters. However, they also typically have several volunteer fire departments, who are called upon in case of larger emergencies.
Municipalities are the support of volunteer fire departments. Additional funding may include, for example, contributions from support organizations, donations made in fundraising or income from various events.
Volunteer fire departments are mostly found in rural and remote areas of Canada, with 127,000 such firefighters across the country. Most urban and larger fire services began as volunteer service and evolved into full-time members. Volunteer departments are necessary for areas that cannot afford to staff a full-time department.
Chile is one of the few countries in the world in which all firefighters are unpaid. The local fire departments are part of the National Board of Firefighters (Junta Nacional de Bomberos). Since the Great Fire of Valparaíso in April 2014 a long debate has been going on whether firefighters should be paid.
In Finland the firefighting in the countryside mostly depends on volunteer fire departments, nearly always with a contract with the regional emergency authorities (or, formerly and in Åland, the municipality). There are volunteer fire departments also in cities, but there with a minor role.
In Indonesia, the city with the biggest number of volunteer fire brigades is Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan province. The city is also sometimes nicknamed "kota seribu pemadam kebakaran" (The city with a thousand of fire brigades). Access of water is also relatively easy as rivers are easily founded at the city to be the source of water for fire fighting. The need of more fire brigades in the city emerged when people realized the very frequent incidents of fire, especially structure fire because houses are traditionally made out of wood, and also hence the hot temperature near the equator, fire incidents are common, thus many people made and become volunteer fire brigades to assist the existing government fire brigade (the Dinas Pemadam Kebakaran). These volunteer fire brigades are paid Rp 0.000,- but in some cases, some people give them money for charitable reasons.
The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) in the Republic of Ireland is a branch of the national civil defence organisation. The service is usually only called upon for flooding incidents, emergency water supply and large-scale incidents where the resources of front-line fire brigades are stretched.
In Nicaragua there are three different groups of firefighters, one ruled by the Direccion General de Bomberos 18 fire station which has government support and the other two Federación de Cuerpos de Bomberos de Nicaragua Benemeritos with 8 fire station and Asociacion civil Cuerpo de BOMBEROS Voluntarios de Nicaragua 24 fire station are volunteers firefighters around the Country.
Peru's bomberos are all unpaid volunteers that put out fires, clear up hazardous materials, aid in natural disasters, and bring the sick to hospitals, in a 150-year tradition. Citizens apply to enter a training program they must pay for with their own money. There they’ll learn how to put out fires, provide first aid and use specialized equipment. If they complete the program they enter a probation period where they have to prove they are capable of dealing with real-life emergencies.
State Fire Service (Polish: Państwowa Straż Pożarna) is a professional firefighting service that covers whole territory from their stations in cities and towns. In rural areas however, local inhabitants may create a Voluntary Fire Service (Ochotnicza Straż Pożarna) under proper law. Such volunteer fire service may receive a financial help from the government for the equipment and staff training. In certain areas of Poland almost every village has a volunteer fire service because members of such enjoy high respect in their community. On the other hand, volunteer fire service is fully integrated with the emergency system. Any call to fire emergency number is routed to the nearest State Fire Service station which firstly deploys the nearest volunteer fire service and later aids them with the state forces.
In the United Kingdom, the only autonomous volunteer fire service is the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade, which is contracted to provide operations for Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service. Other voluntary fire brigades existed in the past, but no others have existed since the disbanding of the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1968. It is standard for smaller, rural stations to be manned by retained firefighters, who are part-time firefighters who live or work in the vicinity of a fire station and spend long periods of time on call. There are some voluntary units that are part of a regular fire service, such as the Borth Voluntary Fire Unit is under the command of Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service also have some volunteer-operated stations.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 69 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers. The Volunteer Firefighter Alliance represents Volunteer Firefighters across the U.S., as well the National Volunteer Fire Council represents the fire and emergency services on a national level, providing advocacy, information, resources, and programs to support volunteer first responders. The NVFC includes 49 state-based firefighter associations such as the Firemen's Association of the State of New York (FASNY), which provides information, education and training for the volunteer fire and emergency medical services throughout New York State.
Volunteer firefighters go through some or all of the same training as career personnel do; this too varies between jurisdictions. When volunteers join a department, they often sign up for firefighting classes and other certifications that teach them what they need to know to become a volunteer firefighter. Examples of these certifications include Firefighter I, Firefighter II, S-130/S-190, Emergency Medical Responder, and Emergency Medical Technician. Some departments also require recruits to complete a certain amount of in-house training. During this time, often called the probationary period, the recruit is known as a probationary firefighter, or "probie". Once the probationary period is complete, the member is eligible to become a full firefighter.
In the United States, the Department of Labor classifies volunteer firefighters as firefighters that receive no compensation or nominal fees up to 20% of the compensation a full-time firefighter would receive in the same capacity. The DOL allows volunteer firefighters to receive benefits such as worker's compensation, health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, pension plans, length of service awards, and property tax relief. DOL-defined volunteer firefighters may be paid nominal fees on a per call basis, per shift basis, or various service requirements, but may not be compensated based on productivity such as with an hourly wage.
The terms "part paid" and "paid on-call" refer to firefighters that are receiving some compensation less than the compensation a full-time firefighter would receive. It may often refer to volunteer firefighters that do not qualify as volunteers under the United States Department of Labor. They may also volunteer time for training, public education, fund-raising, and other non-emergency department related activities.
A VFD may be financially supported by taxes raised in a city, town, county, fire district, or other governmental entity, as well as corporate and other private donations, federal grants, and other assistance from auxiliary members, or firefighters' associations.
With these funds the VFD acquires and operates the firefighting apparatus, equips and trains the firefighters, maintains the firehouse, and possibly also covers insurance, worker's compensation, and other post-injury or retirement benefits. A VFD (or its governing entity) may also contract with other nearby departments to cover each other in a mutual aid (or automatic aid) pact as a means for assisting each other with equipment and manpower, when necessary.
Depending upon the location and availability of other services, a VFD may be responsible for controlling structure fires as well as forest fires. Because it may be the only emergency services department for some distance, a rural VFD may also be fortunate to include community first responders, emergency medical technicians, Hazardous Materials response, and other specially qualified rescue personnel. Law enforcement officers may also be trained in these related duties and overlap with the VFD. The VFD may also have duties as the local fire inspectors, arson investigators, and as fire safety and prevention education, in addition to being the local civil defense or disaster relief liaison.
A volunteer fire department is normally reached the same way as other emergency services, such as by calling 9-1-1 or 1-1-2. A central dispatcher then calls out the VFD, often through equipment such as pagers, radios, or loud signals, such as a fire siren. Average response times are longer than with full-time services because the members must come from different distances to the station or to the incident. Such departments often have a fixed number of firefighters on staff at any given point in time, which sometimes equals the minimal numbers recommended. Some states allow the use of Length of Service Award Programs (LOSAPS) to provide these volunteer departments with a tool to assist in recruiting and retaining members. LOSAPS are simple programs that can be implemented with minimal taxpayer expense.
Some volunteer fire departments allow the use of Courtesy lights or emergency lights and sirens by its members. In most states that allow both lights and sirens, this is a red light and siren that gives the responding member the same privileges as other emergency vehicles. In other jurisdictions, this may be a green or blue light without a siren. The use of such equipment varies from fire district to fire district based on need for fast response, distance that members live from the fire station, the size and amount of other traffic in the fire district as well as local and state law. Some departments restrict or prohibit use of such emergency lights, even when allowed by state law, due to the increased risk of traffic accidents involving volunteers responding in emergency mode. In some states, volunteer firefighters and EMTs are eligible to receive specialty license plates for personal vehicles that identify them as trained emergency services personnel.
Operational volunteer fire department members receive some form of training, either in a formal or informal setting, depending on the state and regulatory authority. The level and type of basic and specialty training varies across the country. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has several published standards for fire fighter qualifications and training, including Standard for Fire Service Professional Qualifications Accreditation and Certification Systems, and Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. These standards apply to both volunteer and career fire fighters.
New members are referred to as "recruits," "rookies," "probies" (short for "probationary"), or even "red hats" in some departments that require the recruit to wear special gear or markings (such as a red helmet in some departments) to denote their ranking. Some departments allow (or even require) new recruits to ride along on fire apparatus as observers before undergoing the rigors of further fire training.
Fire fighters typically progress through formal Fire Fighter I and Fire Fighter II training in accordance with national standards.
Specialty training can include wildland firefighting, technical rescue, swift water rescue, hazardous materials response, vehicle extrication, FAST team, fire instructor, fire officer and others.
A VFD may hold an "open house" at their station. The event serves many purposes including demonstration, training, drill, fundraising and recruitment. There is no particular format for the VFD open house. It can be formal or informal. The goal is to get public involvement in the VFD efforts. It is recommended that the open house should include demonstrations of equipment and show and tell. This allows the public to understand how the volunteers are organized in their local community and it is used as a public relations tool. The combination of demonstrations and drills allow the public and prospect volunteers to see volunteer fire fighters in action while they are participating in the practices.