Volunteer fire departments are part of the fabric of our country.
In fact, they pre-date the formation of the nation. They've been serving communities for more than 300 years.
Seventy-three percent of fire departments in the country are staffed by volunteers. There are more than 800,000 volunteer firefighters in the United States.
Washington and Morton, two growing, bustling central Illinois communities, each has a volunteer fire department and is not looking to make a change to a full-time department.
One major reason involves cold, hard facts.
In addition to providing an invaluable service, volunteer fire departments across the country save communities an estimated $37 billion annually. In Morton and Washington, the number is an estimated $2 million to $4 million annually in each town.
The Morton Fire Department is under the auspices of the village of Morton. The department's firefighting budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year is $670,000.
"Having a volunteer fire department is a huge benefit financially for our community," said Morton Fire Chief Joe Kelley.
The Washington Fire Department, which operates as a not-for-profit corporation and receives $600,000 annually from the city of Washington for firefighting and emergency medical services, was formed in 1879. It moved into its current headquarters station in 1996.
The Morton Fire Department was formed in 1884. It moved into its current headquarters station in 2010.
Both departments are quite visible in their community, not just responding to calls.
They're at community events with their equipment and of course provide horn-blaring rides through town for champion sports teams.
Washington also hosts the annual Paul Lukavich Tazewell County Fire Training School and has a fire training tower (the Chris Koehl Training Facility) on Constitution Street that was built in 2011.
Washington has 28 volunteer firefighters. Morton has 35. Many volunteers also serve their department as paid emergency medical technicians. Each department is always looking for new volunteers with call volumes rising.
Volunteer firefighter is a bit of a misnomer. A better description is paid on-call firefighter.
Volunteers are paid a modest stipend for each call they respond to — in the $10 to $20 range in most communities — according to their level of training.
These calls can come at any hour, day or night. Volunteers respond to fires and other emergencies like vehicle accidents, search and rescue and EMT assistance from their home, job, family gathering, and sometimes a deep sleep.
"Whomever is available responds," Kelley said.
In Morton, volunteers respond to either the headquarters fire station on West Courtland Street or the department's second station on West Adams Street.
Tom Brecklin, 55, has been a Washington volunteer firefighter for 30 years.
He's been the owner of Brecklin's BP service station in Washington for 37 years. Owning the business has allowed him to respond to calls in the afternoon, when many fellow volunteers aren't available.
Not all the calls have come at opportune times. Like during a family birthday party.
"You've got to go," said the father of four and grandfather of three.
Brecklin said his wife, Karen, is understanding.
"She goes with the flow," he said.
Spouses and significant others of Washington volunteer firefighters don't go unrecognized. An appreciation night is held each year to say thank you.
Adam Mellen, 32, has been a Morton volunteer firefighter for 11 years. The lifelong Morton resident and 2003 Morton High School graduate is the training officer for the Morton Fire Department and is close to earning his paramedic certification.
His "day jobs" are doing sales and service for outdoor power equipment and construction work. He said there's no end in sight when it comes to his volunteer firefighter career.
"Why am I a volunteer firefighter? I'll probably give you the same answer other volunteers do. It's a passion, my way of giving back to the community, and I work with a great group of people," he said.
"Plus, on every call, you're asked to solve a different problem. You can't predict what the day will bring and most every day is a good day."
Mellen proudly pointed out that of the 35 Morton volunteer firefighters, 28 have at least EMT basic certification along with specialties like hazardous materials, technical rescue, rope rescue and water rescue.
"Our training budget makes that possible," he said.
Mellen and his wife, Rose, have been married for 2 1/2 years. Like Brecklin, Mellen said his wife is understanding and supportive of his volunteer firefighter obligations.
Brecklin said he keeps volunteering because of the responsibilities and his colleagues.
"We get good training and the latest gear and I work with a good group of people," he said.
Several years ago, Washington volunteer firefighters installed a new roof on a fellow volunteer's home to save money, he said.
Brecklin offered a bit of advice for a prospective volunteer firefighter.
"You have to want to do it," he said. "In addition to responding to calls, there's a lot of training needed. You're away from your family a lot."
Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.