(Aug. 3, 2018) Despite any financial incentive, Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company members are happy to sacrifice leisure time to serve the community.
Mike LeCompte, who was on duty last Saturday at Fire Headquarters on 15th Street, has been responding to accident scenes for the past four decades.
“This is a very time-consuming hobby,” he said. “When you look at the end of the year and the hours we put in, it’s a lot of time.”
Capt. Connor Braniff said in addition to handling emergency calls in the resort, volunteer fire units respond when needed for fires calls in Berlin and Bishopville, among other locations in Worcester County.
“We have a very large geographical response area,” he said.
In addition to putting out blazes, volunteer firefighters also assist with water rescues.
“We handle beach responses after lifeguards are off duty,” he said.
Braniff estimated last Saturday more than a dozen volunteers were staffing engine crews at the 15th and 130th Street stations, to bolster the response capabilities of roughly two-dozen career firefighters on duty that day.
“We’re mainly there to handle the major things until they arrive,” he said.
Helping paramedics and EMS units is also a priority, LeCompte said.
“Sometimes we drive for them and let them do their thing in the back,” he said. “If we got a call with multiple victims, then we all jump in and do what we have to do.”
At about 6:30 p.m., LeCompte and Braniff, along with duty crew members Dominic Buzzuro, Cesar Campos, Justin Poland and Jack Turner, sprang into action for a reported carbon monoxide inhalation at Sunset Island, 67th Street bayside.
Noting that safety is the goal, LeCompte said firefighters are equipped with meters to detect the odorless, colorless gas.
“You don’t know it when it comes to CO, but you’ll know with that meter,” he said. “Our goal is to stay alive because you can’t help anybody if you’re not alive.”
At the scene, volunteer crew members helped career firefighters and the police clear the building and test CO levels before allowing residents back inside.
Although that incident was relatively uneventful, LeCompte said many response scenes are traumatic.
“You take it in stride, but we see a lot of things,” he said. “Any traumatic situation effects each person differently.”
LeCompte said fire crews typically discuss what transpired after responding to calls that involve death and destruction.
“We are trained to watch each other to make sure it’s not processing in the wrong direction,” he said.
The conversations often continue when members return home to their families, LeCompte said.
“We don’t keep it inside of us and we’ve all learned to be very good listeners,” he said. “Most things don’t bother us, but you never get used to death … or seeing people hurt seriously.”
Emergency crews also are seeing an increasing number of suicides, Braniff said, while the scenes of fatal accidents and mishaps also become lodged in their minds.
“Last year, we had a kid that was run over by a boat when he fell off the front and three crews met with him at the Coast Guard station,” he said. “They took every one of them (crew members) out of service and sent them home to decompress.”
LeCompte said tragic scenes, such as two children buried alive in the sand after a hole collapsed, become a permanently embedded memory.
“I went upstairs and took a shower and changed my clothes because I felt dirty from it,” he said. “I actually heard people taking to their wives when I went into the bunk room and I heard one fireman crying. I put my entire crew out of service that night.”
Perhaps the most troubling memory for LeCompte involved an entire family from Sussex County who perished on the beach during a thunderstorm.
“Lightning struck the wooden pole that they were holding onto to keep it down in the sand and it energized and killed all five of them at one time,” he said. “I responded with the fire truck to assist EMS and all five members of the family were dead on the beach.”
The potential for accidents increases after a particularly troubling call, with LeCompte noting any distraction could prove fatal when operating a fire truck.
“If we went to a call right now after something serious, it would be hard for me to not think about it [and] I could run into the back end of somebody,” he said. “You’re seeing something you’re not used to seeing because that person’s never coming back to life.”
In addition to the emotional toll, Braniff said Ocean City volunteer firefighters, unlike those in many departments, are required to re-certify skill training annually.
“We have a stringent requirement for volunteer training and continuing education,” he said. “We re-qualify every year to show that you have retained those skills.”
To meet the challenge of attracting membership, Braniff said the volunteer fire department began a new live-in program this year with several students from Eastern Kentucky University.
“This is the first itineration of that and it’s been a very successful program,” he said. “They’re in a fire-related field in college and I’m pretty sure the word of mouth is going to be good for us.”
Braniff said the department also markets to seasonal police officers and Beach Patrol members.
“If they’ve got fire experience, they’re welcome to apply,” he said. “They’re all green but it’s great because they want to learn.”
Unlike career officers who work scheduled shifts, Braniff said volunteers generally are ready to go out at all times.
“We’ve got to be ready to get in that mindset as soon as the calls come in,” he said. “I could be at home just sitting on my couch reading a book and I’ve got to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
In addition to serving his community, Braniff said what attracted him to join the department a decade ago was the challenge involved and the resulting camaraderie.
“We’re a big family and we also have fun,” he said. “It takes a little while to get accepted and you’ve got to earn your place, but once you do, I’ve got lifelong friends.”
Although volunteerism comes with some personal cost, LeCompte said the civic benefits far outweigh individual sacrifice.
“The volunteer fire company, because of the amount of calls we have, saves the city and county a ton of money
because of what we do for free,” he said. “We could be out boating or fishing today. It takes time and you’ve got to love it.”