Transcript: Benjamin Baham, Volunteer Firefighter and EMS Officer (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode 16: Benjamin Baham, Volunteer Firefighter and EMS Officer.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to The Art of Volunteering. I’m your host, Stormy Bell. Today we welcome Benjamin Baham from the Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department in the Tangipahoa Parish of Louisiana. He’s gonna correct me on how to say that and I’m totally okay with that. He’s a firefighter and an EMS officer. Ben, please introduce yourself, share a little bit about your journey and correct my pronunciation.

Benjamin Baham (00:29): Oh you’re fine. Hey, I’m Ben Baham. I’m a firefighter paramedic with Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Volunteer firefighting has been kinda like a family thing for me, so me and my wife actually get to do it together. We have a five-year-old who’s involved kind of with that other little second family. It’s really been a blessing for our family be to do that. My journey with volunteerism kind of started in high school. I went to EMT school at night when I was in high school. After I got out, I started working in the ER and I was thinking I wanted to go to nursing school and I wanted to actually use my EMS certification. My RTC instructor in high school was one of the training officers at a local volunteer fire department said, come on over. That’s kinda where I got started. There’s been a lot of connected stories and a lot of really good stuff that you know, meeting the right people, having the right mentors, that kind of guided me on my journey. Hopefully that’ll continue to go that direction and also be mentors to other people as well.

Stormy Bell (01:41): Awesome. Now, do you volunteer now or are you on staff?

Benjamin Baham (01:46): So I do both. I’m a career firefighter at Mandeville Fire/EMS. I’ve been a career firefighter for two years. Usually that’s kind of something you want to get in when you’re young, but apparently about two years ago I decided that I needed to start my career as a firefighter which has really been an amazing journey. The kind of thing that always pulled me away from doing the career firefighting is Louisiana and Mississippi are tied for 50th in firefighter pay. It’s really hard to make a decent living as a career firefighter in Louisiana, but I found a department that through certain programs allowed me the opportunity to be able to do what I wanted to do as a career and be able to use it to benefit me in the volunteer aspect.

Stormy Bell (02:40): That’s awesome. When we were getting ready for the podcast, you do a lot within your volunteering. Can you share a little bit about that? Like what you are involved with?

Benjamin Baham (02:56): Yeah! I really do do a lot. I would say if I was the master of something, it would be like the EMS stuff. I’ve always been very interested in all the medical aspects. I am the EMS officer at Eighth Ward Fire Department. I’ve previously been a captain. At one point I was one of the training chiefs. I’m a certification evaluator for the state Fire Academy. I do a lot of other instruction stuff. I’m a state EMS instructor. I also work part-time at the National EMS Academy. I’m not trying to brag on it, but there’s so much stuff that when you call 9-1-1, you’re expecting someone to come fix your problem, right? But there’s an infinite number of problems out there so firefighters have to be very adaptive and very well rounded.

Usually to have an effective firefighter you want to have someone who’s able to at least be helpful on everything, but usually people will try to pick one thing that, ‘hey, I wanna be the guy to go to if this is a problem’. So there is a lot to it, a lot of rescue certifications. Just the firefighter certification loan, the minimum firefighter certifications over 200 hours of training. I figured it up last year to meet the very minimum qualifications that most people have, and this is like the bare minimum low to be able to work and it should be the same qualifications to be a volunteer, it’s like 320 hours. There is a lot to it.

Stormy Bell (04:38): There is a lot to it. Again, when we were getting ready for the interview you were telling me about an initiative that you’re doing in the rural communities, bringing them up to like current standards. Can you explain that a little bit?

Benjamin Baham (04:53): Yeah, when I started at Eighth Ward, there were no firefighters that had any of the industry certifications for firefighting, hazmat. We had guys that had EMS certifications, but the state requires you to have an EMS certification before you’re able to obtain your license to be able to work in EMS, like to be able to provide any patient care, you have to be licensed. So we did have some guys that were at the emergency medical responder level and some guys are at the EMT level. All the firefighting stuff it’s left up to the authority having jurisdiction as to what the standards are. Most departments are the body, are the authority having jurisdictions to make those standards. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into bringing rural departments kind of up to where we would hope to be to be able to provide the services to the community that they deserve and also for us to be safe as well.

There’s a lot that goes into it. I can tell you if you’re ever looking just to donate money or monetary value if you give that to your local fire department, there is an opportunity to get a kind of some payback on that. That’s one of the only things that you can do to reduce your insurance is having a better fire department. How much you pay on your homeowner’s insurance or if you have a business, your business insurance, all that is gonna be based off of the rating for your fire department. A better rated fire department gets you lower cost. So that’s a big goal for us as well is to have a good rating. That should mean that we’re providing good services to our community but it’s also us doing our part to give back to them, not just when they have an emergency, but us giving back and doing our job and being better.

Stormy Bell (06:47): Do you find that your community’s embraced the work that you’re doing? Are they very supportive of you?

Benjamin Baham (06:55): Yeah. We are still kind of a rural community. We’re growing very fast. Our fire department, I think it was two years ago the state told us we were the fastest growing fire district in Louisiana, so our population’s exploding. Our demands are quickly increasing. I think when I started at Eighth Ward our call volume was around 400 calls a year and now we’re averaging over a thousand.

Stormy Bell (07:30): That is an increase.

Benjamin Baham (07:31): It’s picking up quite a bit. With all the other demands that you have on firefighters and maintaining their certifications and doing their training and everything else that’s required of ’em they also have to go on all these emergency calls. It can be quite taxing on all those guys to often be busy. So our department when I got on, was a completely volunteer department. There were no paid guys whatsoever. We’ve transitioned to what they call a combination department, which is where you have some guys who are paid and some volunteers. Ours is still very heavy on the volunteer. We have two paid guys that are on 24 hours a day and everybody else has to fill in cause two guys can’t cover every call or meet the needs of every call or, and if you have more than one call going on at the same time. So we’re very heavily reliant on our volunteers.

Stormy Bell (08:25): How do you recruit your volunteers?

Benjamin Baham (08:28): So actually my wife is head of the membership committee and she has a very strong role in the recruitment. We do have a couple things online, I think through the National Volunteer Fire Council. They have some options there for you to be able to find your local fire department but most of it is kinda word of mouth, finding the right people. For people to respond to emergencies, it does kind of take a certain mindset in a type of person to do it. Not everybody’s able to actually work in all those environments and be effective. A lot of it is word of mouth but if somebody just drives by and they say, you know what, I wanna go volunteer we do have a process of vetting them and initiating them. Then there’s a probationary period of either it works out or not.

Stormy Bell (09:21): So that kind of leads me into the article that I read because you’re published. I know you have at least two articles and the one that caught my attention is the T-shirt volunteer. First, I want you to explain what that means to our listeners, because maybe not everyone’s familiar with that term. Then share how your department make[s] sure that your firefighters are not T-shirt volunteer firefighters. Can you go into that a little bit?

Benjamin Baham (09:50): Sure. The term T-shirt firefighters is kind of an industry term for firefighters. We call those guys who come and they volunteer, they get a T-shirt, and you never see ’em again. Those are the T-shirt firefighters. Unfortunately a lot of people, when they read media, they read the headlines and that’s it. If you look at a lot of comments on the article, they didn’t read the article. They said, oh, I don’t care what they’re wearing, they’re coming to help. It definitely wasn’t a negative article for volunteers. I’ve been a volunteer for almost 15 years. The article was about us doing our part and really any of us can kind of fall into a T-shirt firefighter role anyway, if there’s something that we’re not doing our part in, right? As firefighters we do have to be well-rounded and everybody has their strengths, but we gotta be able to work everywhere. If we’re not working on our weaknesses and able to be effective in our weaknesses, then we can make something unsafe for someone else or maybe if it’s our turn to step up on some kind of emergency and we’re not able to do it, then our community’s missing out.

The big thing about the T-shirt firefighter article was where the process comes from. Have we actually created it as leadership not doing our part, allowing it to happen. That was the big thing of it. Some people may come in with a lot of enthusiasm and through the programs that that department has, they may end up becoming a T-shirt firefighter. They get comfortable in doing almost nothing. So our Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department is very heavily reliant on the volunteers and we have a complete training program to bring you up to our standards. If you want to, we’re gonna get you internationally certified.

Benjamin Baham (11:44): You have many departments out there that are the opposite. They’re not very [reliant] on their volunteers and mainly on their paid guys and unfortunately there’s a number of them that don’t develop our program for the volunteer. They just say you can become a volunteer, but then they don’t give them any direction to go once they get there. They’re just another pair of hands to use and that can be really ineffective especially when there’s such an opportunity. One of the biggest resources that we have as volunteer firefighters is people. Now you have a person coming out to be a volunteer but you’re not using them. You don’t actually get them to be a full effective member. They’re just another pair of hands and that can really be unsafe, but it also doesn’t help you in increasing your efficacy and actually giving better services to the community.

Stormy Bell (12:32): The community I grew up in had a completely 100% volunteer fire department so I’m familiar with that and the dedication that those volunteers had all hours of the day and night, someone who had to be available to go. I remember they had their lights in their vehicles when they’re going to the firehouse. Like you just, you moved over because they had something important to do.

Benjamin Baham (12:57): You would hope. You would be surprised at how often that doesn’t happen.

Stormy Bell (13:07): The hours that they undergo the training, are the volunteers trained to the same level as a career or are there differences? There’s like, there’s only so far a volunteer can go before they become career.

Benjamin Baham (13:21): So it depends on the state and it depends on the department. The standards for training should be the same because you’re providing the same service and the community has the same needs. When you’re graded, I said you know different departments are graded, right? And it could affect your insurance. So in Louisiana you’re actually graded by insurance companies. It’s a little bit of conflict in my opinion. You have the people that are grading you are the ones who are also that you have to pay, right? Everyone is graded the same. It’s on the amount of service that you’re able to provide. For firefighters the basic certifications is you do have to have a hazmat certification and then you’re able to go on your firefighter certification and all of the standards are gonna be the same for those, for the volunteer guys or the pay guys in Louisiana. They do have a couple other states where they have volunteer firefighter certifications but I’m not familiar with them. So Louisiana, they’re exactly the same and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), they’re exactly the same. NFPA is gonna be one standard that everybody can look at and say, okay, this is a standard. That’s what it goes off of.

Stormy Bell (14:37): Okay. Pretty cool.

Benjamin Baham (14:39): You got guys that are doing this for free and they gotta do all the same training as the other guys that are getting paid to do it. It’s, like I said, over 300 hours to get started. That’s a commitment.

Stormy Bell (14:52): That is a commitment. Yeah. You’re just not like, oh, on a whim, I think I’m gonna go help with this. No you gotta really want to do it.

Benjamin Baham (15:03): Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (15:04): My question for you is, what motivates you to serve your community in such an intense way?

Benjamin Baham (15:12): I think there’s a lot. Growing up I did some volunteer with Boy Scouts, in church, and when I was in Junior ROTC in high school. I also didn’t grow up in a very wealthy family, so there was a lot of times when my family was the recipient of charity or volunteerism and things like that. I think I just got very fond of it once I started doing it and fell in love with it and said, you know what? This is something that I’m good at. I can give back to my community that’s in a deficit for these services and I wanna be able to provide it. It can be hard because it’s a second job. I’ve been in school for the last three years and I had two jobs, school, and trying to manage my responsibilities at a volunteer fire department so it can be a lot but having my wife is part of it [means] a lot. There’s a lot of times when she’s just kind of like, hey, we’re the team, you know, you and me against the world and we’re gonna go out there and do it. That’s kind of a beautiful thing, being able to merge that second family with your real family.

Stormy Bell (16:21): Your first family.

Benjamin Baham (16:22): Yeah absolutely. You know, my kid loves it up there. He’s all about being a firefighter, so I dunno if he is up with one or not but whatever he wants to do we’ll support him. He always says he wants to be a firefighter. I’m really happy with that. I really like being able to provide services to these people that they wouldn’t regularly get. Because if you call 9-1-1, somebody’s gotta come quick. You expect someone to show up and they’re gonna fix your problem so being able to build people up to be able to make that response is really important. I’ve really found a lot of enjoyment in being the instructor and being able to help people change and grow and develop into those effective emergency people who can come out there and solve those problems.

Stormy Bell (17:08): I like that. I like your motivation. Now your blooper.

Benjamin Baham (17:14): Now the blooper. Okay.

Stormy Bell (17:16): Now the blooper. Alright, please share a volunteering blooper and what you learned from it.

Benjamin Baham (17:23): Absolutely. The day before we were going on a cruise, we had a large structure fire. I actually believe I may have been the first one there so I was the incident commander for the call. My wife was shuttling water, which means she was taking a truck, going to get more water, and coming back because we didn’t have availability of a hydrant close by that we could connect to and use that for water. So at one point someone told her to go get more water and she didn’t realize that she wasn’t disconnected yet. The hose on her truck was connected to a truck that I was standing next to and that hose pinned me against that firetruck for a few seconds before the hoses decided to fail. We went on vacation with me limping on the first day with a swollen leg but it was good. That was our first cruise and it was fantastic. She’ll never live that down.

Stormy Bell (18:25): All right, so what’d you learn from that?

Benjamin Baham (18:27): What did I learn from that? Oh! Don’t stand between a hose and a firetruck I guess. That’s a pretty rare thing for that specific occasion to happen but absolutely. Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (18:40): Alright, here comes the part of the interview I want you to love on the Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department. Just love on them.

Benjamin Baham (18:48): Absolutely. Look, we got a lot of great guys. There’s dedication from both our volunteers and from all of our paid guys. Okay. I know a lot of times people will say, Hey look, I’m gonna show up at the fire department and somebody’s sitting up on a couch. Well, you know what? He might have been up all night long. He literally might have been up for 24 hours before you saw him sitting on the couch. It can be a lot. We have an extremely dedicated chaplain. It’s the only one I’ve seen in the region like this. So if we have any very bad calls he wants to contact that family. He wants to do his part that he can. If we have any issues with emergency responders, he wants to do his part on that. He’s developing a regional team to help with the stress of emergency services.

That’s a very unique thing that he’s doing. Really great guy. If we had more of that, this industry would be all the better. All the officers except for the fire chief are all volunteer. We have two assistant chiefs that are, heck, it’s like a second full-time job for those guys. Not even a second part-time job and you know one of them already working full-time, so he’s got two full-time jobs, right? All the captains are a volunteer position. We have some dedicated guys who were just starting and we have other guys who’ve been there for, for 20 years.

Benjamin Baham (20:23): With our community growing, I do feel like it’s kind of hard to keep that close-knit community like we used to have when you had people who’ve been living in the same area as families for like a century, right? Now you got people that are moving in that are new. I think one of our struggles is connecting with all the new people that are coming in and just letting them know, hey, this is who we are. They can know about us before they have to call 9-1-1. We got a really great group of guys over there, very dedicated. It’s a big sacrifice, but it can often be worth it. Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (21:05): Well, I’m glad that you do what you do. I’m glad the fire department that I grew up with did what they did. 

Benjamin Baham (21:12): Unfortunately usually when the fire department’s showing up it’s a bad day or maybe someone’s worse day, but you have some very beautiful people out there who are struggling to respond it out and to make that day even this much better. Sometimes it can be monotonous and it can be hard like when you’re getting up at three o’clock in the morning again to go to the same house for someone who just has fallen and needs help getting up, but that person doesn’t have another option. It’s an emergency to them because they can’t get up. You know, what would you do if you were stuck on the ground, right? You want somebody to come help [you]. Then you’d catch people on really, really bad days. You know, loss of a family member or something like that and it can take its toll on you, but there’s very often a lot of rewards that come with it.

Stormy Bell (22:11): So you see it all. You see the good, the bad and the ugly.

Benjamin Baham (22:14): Yep. Good, bad and the ugly absolutely. Unfortunately sometimes that good and bad can take its toll for a while but whenever you see that good, it’s such a unique experience. I’ll say this, most emergency responders will often not recognize how much of an impact that they have on other people. For example, that person who’s fallen, I just need help getting up. Right? You may never understand how appreciative they’re that someone was able to come pick them up.

Stormy Bell (22:46): Well, thank you for being our guest today on The Art of Volunteering. I truly appreciate this time having a glimpse into what volunteer firefighters and EMS officers and all the other hands that support the community, what they do. It’s more than what I probably put thought into growing up to what the families who were the volunteer firefighters in my home community. So thank you for that.

Benjamin Baham (23:12): Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (23:13): I will see you next time on The Art of Volunteering. Have a great day.

Show Notes & Links
Benjamin Baham, FireRescue1 –
Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department –
Eighth Ward Volunteer Fire Department Facebook –

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