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‘Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat’: Behind the lines of America’s volunteer fire service

The documentary has a clear message for the fire service: You need to understand your community and be willing to make changes


My department, Patton Fire Company No.1, hosted a screening of the documentary “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat.” It took me awhile to get used to saying those words in the right order, but it didn’t take me long to determine that this was going to be a different type of documentary.

I’m somewhat of a history buff, and I have watched Ken Burns’ documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, country music and many other topics. Burns has a style that I was used to. He frequently incorporates simple musical melodies into his works and knows how to breathe life to old photographs. That’s what I was expecting from “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” – but that was not the style here.


The film’s message to the fire service: You simply need to understand your community and be willing to make changes to accommodate your residents.

The first character we meet in “Odd Hours” is Jenna Dunbar. Jenna is lucky to be alive, having survived a wildland fire that destroyed her community. That experience left her with a yearning to become a firefighter. Her story sets the tone of the movie – emotionally intense. Its message isn’t hidden or open for interpretation. It is simple and clear: The fire and emergency medical services in America are on life support, and everyone can help in some way.

The fire service has a rich history full of tradition, ultimately providing a strong foundation. That tradition has also stuck the fire service in a “We have always done it this way so why change?” mentality. Change has become a dirty word for some – a word to not even whisper in a fire station. Through expert storytelling, “Odd Hours” crisscrosses America, making stops in California, Washington, Texas, Virginia, Nebraska, New York and Maryland, to show how departments are making changes to bolster their ranks.

In Monsey, New York, we meet Yitzy Grunwald. Yitzy wanted to join the fire department, but his Hasidic Jewish religious requirements were not in line with department regulations. Yitzy couldn’t shave his beard because of his religious beliefs, and with a full, long beard, his face can’t be properly fitted for a mask. With a large Hasidic population in the area, Monsey’s fire department faces serious problems finding members.

The department took the initiative to change its rules to include exterior-only firefighters. Now, Yitzy and others can be members of the department. By making that change, the department was allowed to expand its ranks. Doing so also brought the community together.

The documentary also introduces us to Barbara Williams, a retired court reporter who had recently moved to Northern Virginia. All she wanted to do was help with record-keeping at her local fire department, Little Fork Volunteer Fire & Rescue. Today Barbara is an EMT running calls on a daily basis.

The message in “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” is crystal clear. From the community’s standpoint, every resident has something to offer their local fire or EMS agency. From the fire and EMS standpoint, you simply need to understand your community and be willing to make changes to accommodate your residents.

The movie could have been about 20 minutes shorter, and at times could have moved faster, but overall, I give it a 9.7 out of 10. I highly recommend that your members watch the movie and make it available to your community for viewing.

If you want more information on how you can host a screening of the movie, visit the “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” official website.

Watch the trailer here:

Jerry Brant is a senior grant consultant and grant writer with FireGrantsHelp and EMSGrantsHelp. He has 46 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter in west-central Pennsylvania. He is a life member of the Hope Fire Company of Northern Cambria, where he served as chief for 15 years. He is an active member of the Patton Fire Company 1 and serves as safety officer. Brant graduated from Saint Francis University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. In 2003, he was awarded a James A Johnson Fellowship by the FannieMae Foundation for his accomplishments in community development, and in 2019, he was honored as with the Leroy C Focht Sr. Memorial Award from the Central District Volunteer Fireman’s Association. He has successfully written more than $70 million in grant applications. Brant can be reached via email.