See also the Firefighter article and its respective sections regarding VFDs in other countries.
A volunteer fire department (VFD) is an organization of firefighters who have joined forces to perform fire suppression and other related emergency services for a local jurisdiction. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 73 percent of firefighters in the United States are members of VFDs.
The term "volunteer" contrasts with career firefighters who are full-time firefighters, working organized shifts, usually based in a centrally located firehouse. Some volunteer departments may operate as part of a combination system, where paid firefighters also provide emergency services. In this way, a station can be regularly staffed for rapid response with apparatus, and the volunteers provide supplementary staffing and/or staffed apparatus before, during, and after an incident, or while the career staff are out of service doing training.
The term "volunteer" may also be used in reference to a group of part-time or on-call firefighters who may have other occupations when not engaged in occasional firefighting. Although they may have "volunteered" to become members, and to respond to the call for help, they are compensated as employees during the time they are responding to or attending an emergency scene, and possibly even for training drills. An on-call firefighter would probably be expected to volunteer time for other non-emergency duties as well (training, fundraising, equipment maintenance, etc).
In the United Kingdom there are almost no separate volunteer fire departments, but part-time members of fire brigades who man smaller, often rural, stations are known as retained firefighters.
A VFD may be financially supported by taxes raised in a city, town, county, fire district, or other governmental entity, as well as corporate and other private donations, federal grants, and other assistance from auxiliary members, or firefighters' associations.
With these funds the VFD acquires and operates the firefighting apparatus, equips and trains the firefighters, maintains the firehouse, and possibly also covers insurance, worker's compensation, and other post-injury or retirement benefits. A VFD (or its governing entity) may also contract with other nearby departments to cover each other in a mutual aid or automatic aid pact as a means for assisting each other with equipment and manpower, when necessary.
Depending upon the location and availability of other services, a VFD may be responsible for controlling structure fires as well as forest fires. Because it may be the only emergency services department for some distance, a rural VFD may also be fortunate to include First responders, Emergency medical technicians, Hazardous Materials response, and other specially qualified rescue personnel. Law enforcement officers may also be trained in these related duties and overlap with the VFD. The VFD may also have duties as the local fire inspectors, arson investigators, and as fire safety and prevention education, in addition to being the local civil defense or disaster relief liaison.
A VFD is normally reached the same way as other emergency services, such as by calling 9-1-1. A central dispatcher then calls out the VFD, often through equipment such as pagers, radios, or loud signals (e.g., a fire siren). Average response times may be longer than with full-time services because the members must come from different distances to the station or to the incident. However, there is a possibility that more firefighters may arrive at an incident with a volunteer department, as compared to paid departments. Such departments often have a fixed number of firefighters on staff at any given point in time, which sometimes equals the minimal numbers recommended.
Many jurisdictions permit or require VFD members to equip their privately owned vehicles with special emergency lights (such as flashing green, red, or blue lights, or a red "FIRE" headlamp) and sirens. By law, others using the public ways may be required to yield the roadways to the VFD members when their emergency lights or sirens are on. This may permit the members to travel more quickly to the fire station or directly to the incident where their services are needed. Some states, such as New York, only provide volunteers with courtesy lights; volunteers utilizing courtesy lights must still follow all state vehicle and traffic laws. However, other departments restrict or prohibit use of such emergency lights, even when allowed by state law, due to the increased risk of traffic accidents involving volunteers responding in emergency mode.