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Volunteers Fight Fires to Protect Their Community

To most Americans, the governments in their towns and regional areas called counties are the governments they interact with the most. And alongside these local governments are groups of citizens who work on their own to make life better.

In this segment of a multi-part series, VOA correspondent Jeffrey Young takes a close-up look at the Rockville, Maryland, Volunteer Fire Department.

Fires destroy. Fires can be deadly. And when the alarm bell rings, there are people in Rockville, Maryland who give up their time -- and risk their lives -- to serve as volunteer firefighters.

It is the end of another weekday -- quitting time for most people. But not for Mike Pokorney and Tony Roman at the volunteer fire department in Rockville, Maryland, a city just outside Washington, D.C.

Pokorney and Roman are just starting their second work shift of the day at the station house. Rockville has paid professional firefighters, but that is not enough. Highly trained volunteers help ensure the city's safety.

For Mike Pokorney, being a volunteer firefighter is more than serving his community. It is his life. "It's every kid's dream or fantasy to be a fireman. I always wanted to do this," he says.

Tony Roman says firefighting is what makes his life exciting. "Some people play golf. I come here. I have lots of fun doing it. "

Firefighters stick together, both on the scene of a fire and at the station house. The camaraderie among firefighters, both professionals and volunteers, is strong. After all, they are protecting each other's lives... and the lives of those they rescue.

Whatever people are doing at the station house stops when the fire alarms go off. Mike Pokorney says that sound goes straight to his heart. "When the tones go off for the [fire] engine, the adrenaline levels go way up because you have no idea what we're going for. The feeling of that is incredible."

Pokorney's full time career is with Montgomery County's government. He makes sure that new buildings' plans conform to fire safety regulations. Tony Roman's daytime job is with the U.S. government's Department of Agriculture, where he handles permits for farm product imports.

Roman says he has learned how to balance emergency calls with chances to get some sleep at the station house so he can function at his day job.

[After the fire call] "You just cool down and try to go back to bed because I have to be up next morning just to go to work,” says Roman. “I have the support of my regular job. They [the Department of Agriculture] know I do this."

But Mike Pokorney says getting those naps in-between calls is not easy. "If you're running [working at] a fire and you're there three or four hours, you're dead, dead tired. But our job's not done. You have to come back to the station house and clean up everything you used. Then, maybe, you can go to bed."

Volunteer fire departments are the majority -- 56 percent – of the firefighting force in Montgomery County, Maryland. The head of the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, Eric Bernard, says his and other volunteer fire stations save taxpayers millions of dollars. "We raised the money ourselves to build this fire station. We bought most of the equipment in it as well."

Volunteer firefighting has been a tradition in the United States for hundreds of years. Many of today's Rockville volunteer firefighters had fathers who also manned this station house. Firefighting is such a part of life for some of these volunteers that they take their sense of duty, and community, with them to the grave.

And some of their children, and grandchildren, will step into their boots.