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Volunteers----We do it for excitement

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  • Volunteers----We do it for excitement

    Excitement entices volunteer firefighters

    Hundreds throughout Brevard battle blazes for free

    By Lourdes Briz
    FLORIDA TODAY

    MALABAR -- The allure of an adrenaline rush keeps Jason Calabrese at the Malabar volunteer fire department up to 30 hours a week.

    Sometimes he gets called out to fires. Other times he sits on secondhand couches and watches TV.

    "After my first fire, I was like a kid that got off his favorite ride at Disney," said Calabrese, who works part-time jobs as a tow-truck driver and emergency medical technician in Orange County. "I was like, 'Let's do it again.' "

    Calabrese, 26, is one of hundreds of firefighters that give their free time to man the 20 contracted volunteer departments sprinkled throughout Brevard County. Many of the volunteers, who range in age, gender and background, see it as a way to give back to the community, while the cities and towns they serve see the departments as a way to save taxpayers money since they don't have to pay firefighter salaries.

    "The fact that we have a volunteer fire department saves taxpayers about a million dollars a year," said Jackie Burns, city manager of Indian Harbour Beach.

    But volunteer departments also have drawbacks, such as stations not being manned constantly, according to C.W. Blosser, president of the Florida State Firefighters Association.

    "It's basically a tradeoff. It depends on the level of service you want to have and how much you're willing to pay for it," he said.

    Another drawback is departments do not always know the motives behind people wanting to volunteer. Members of the Malabar department were shaken when one of their own was arrested at the station June 10 on charges of stealing $850 worth of fire equipment, including two chainsaws and a reciprocator saw. David Spatafora, a 26-year-old South Carolina native who'd only been with the department for six months, faces four felony counts of grand theft, trafficking in stolen property and false verification of ownership to a pawnbroker.

    He is out on $3,000 bond and is scheduled to go before a judge on July 11. Firefighters were able to recover the equipment.

    Capt. Bryan Eriksen, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 12 years, said many in the department were angry and surprised.

    "We couldn't believe anyone would do that . . . I couldn't believe it was happening to us," he said.

    He said fire departments are like a brotherhood. Many of the 50-member department get together regularly for parties and picnics. "A lot of us are like family," Eriksen said.

    Eriksen said the reported incident would not affect the department's current screening process. Potential volunteers already have criminal background checks performed and require personal references.

    Felony convictions or bad driving records disqualify a volunteer and misdemeanors are reviewed on a case by case basis.

    Joseph Cody, volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician at Indialantic Fire Rescue, said the department has turned down potential volunteers for having DUI convictions and bad references.

    "We found out the hard way that kids lie a little bit sometimes," he said.

    But he said he's found the process is effective. "We actually check the references," he said, adding that some references have even admitted when an applicant was just released from jail.

    John Gore, volunteer coordinator for Brevard County Fire Rescue, said the agency screens potential volunteers with a "very stringent background check."

    It includes a criminal background check, driver's license history, and personal and work references. "We have to be able to depend on people who go into other people's houses," he said.

    Gore said there are approximately 250 volunteer firefighters for the agency alone who range in age from 18 to 70.

    For some, becoming a volunteer firefighter is a cheaper way to find out if fire fighting is the right career path.

    Calabrese first became interested in the field during the brush fires in 1998. He was working as an auto mechanic at the time.

    "I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself," he said. "So I decided to give it a try."

    He's considering a career in law enforcement or in paramedics.

    Eriksen said volunteering is cheaper than going to school for firefighting and then finding out that it is not the right career.

    Also, some don't want to quit their day jobs only to find out firefighting is not right for them.

    "We've got the 18-year-old who saw it on the news and wants to come help. We've got retirees from up north and middle-aged people who want to help their community and protect their own," Eriksen said.

    About eight women volunteer for the Malabar fire department.

    Satellite Beach Fire Department Chief Daniel Rocque started his career as a volunteer in 1970. It was the excitement that drew him.

    "I watched a brush fire occurring right next to my parent's house. It looked like a cool thing to do," he said of firefighting.

    He's seen a decrease in the amount of volunteers in the last decade. "Our normal roster was 20 to 25. Right now we have five to seven active volunteers," he said.

    He attributed the decreasing rate to higher state regulations that require volunteer firefighters to have about 160 hours of training prior to entering a burning structure.

    "It becomes a time issue. Although they'd like to commit, the time is becoming very excessive," he said.

    The department requires volunteers to work at least 24 hours per month. "This was the icing on the cake," he said.

    Inconveniences aside, what keeps Calabrese coming back is the thrills.

    "It's more of an addiction than anything," he said.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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