GRAYS RIVER, WASH. — The musty old Grays River Grange Hall had standing room only. Yet, I sat with a handful of others at the front of the room, in two rows of old theater seats, staring back at neighbors, family, and friends. Those of us up front were more than a little embarrassed with all the attention. As if we were heroes, I thought, but what had we done? We had joined the Grays River Valley Volunteer Fire Department and completed 140 hours of training to become emergency medical technicians. Two of us had signed up to become volunteer firefighters as well. This community celebration was a way of acknowledging our dedication.
Yet, it was something more, too.
A similar size crowd had gathered in the hall six months before. At that meeting, the news was grim. Without new volunteer firefighters and EMTs to answer calls, we were in danger of losing our ability to maintain these services. For our valley, that would have been dire news indeed. In a community like ours, a volunteer from the fire department is the person who shows up on the scene when you call 911 for an ambulance. After a car accident, volunteer firefighters free you if you are trapped in your car and then provide important emergency care.
We live more than 40 miles from the nearest hospital. Only a few hundred people reside in the Grays River Valley. There is no way we could afford to pay for professional fire and ambulance services. It is cold comfort to know that our community is not alone in struggling to find volunteers. The number of volunteer firefighters has declined nationwide by 15 percent over the past 20 years, while the number of 911 calls they must answer has increased significantly. Some fire departments reported a brief spike in interest after the attacks on Sept. 11, but most still report a shortage of volunteers.
As we work longer hours, commute long distances, we've come to guard our free time jealously - even if it is spent in front of a TV. Meanwhile, training requirements for firefighting and emergency medicine have increased dramatically. More hours of training are required every year.
This valley has long been home of dairy farms, loggers, and fishermen. Yet, as those industries have faded over the past 20 years, it has also become home to people who work outside the area, telecommuters, and early retirees. The EMT class represented the spectrum of people in the valley: two retirees, a dairy farmer, a mother and a grandmother, a worker for the local phone company, a mill worker, and a website editor - three men and five women.
EMT training was four months of classes two nights a week - from 6:30 to 9:30 - and a half-dozen Saturdays for all-day hands-on training sessions. Often I would get home from work, study during dinner, and then be off to class. In the last two weeks before the state certification tests, we were at the fire hall five nights a week - sometimes until 10 or 11. Our need to learn competed with family obligations and postponed vacations.
We gained confidence and inspiration from our instructors' dedication as they, too, put in long evenings and weekends. They, in turn, said that they were inspired by us. In fact, wherever we went in the community people stopped to thank us and to tell us how important all this was.
The veterans have warned that we'll see things that we'll wish we could forget. That too often the call will be to someone's house that we know. That we might often be the best thing on the worst day of someone's life.
So why did I join?
In truth, I guess I was hungry for something. It seems as if there's been a hole inside me for the past two years - dating back to a Tuesday in September 2001. I remember watching the crowds of people lining up to give blood for victims who would never be found. I understood then their need to get out from behind the TV and to do something, to strike against the feeling of uselessness. It took me two years to respond to that inner call. When asked, I joke that I joined the fire department because I realized I'd feel pretty stupid if my house was burning down and no one showed up to put it out.
But joking aside, isn't that exactly why we form communities, cities, states, and nations? We invest a part of ourselves to make something larger than us better - whether it be a volunteer fire department or a nation. Who wants to live in a place where no one comes when you need help? If you don't volunteer - or support those who do - why should you expect others to answer the call? A community isn't a place, it's the sum total of the interactions of group of people. I think that's really what we were celebrating that night in the Grange Hall.
"The thing this tells us about our community, is that we have one," one speaker at the celebration said. "Different people, with different talents coming together when needed, making a commitment to serve each other - that's what a community is. That's what a community does."
• Ed Hunt is the editor in chief of the Tidepool.org news service.