“When the tone drops, we want to go, we want to help and we want to make that difference when someone else needs it. I don’t hesitate when my pager goes off — I’m in the truck running to the call and there’s no hesitation to that,” said Michael Willis. “Regardless of it being a house fire at 2 a.m. or a vehicle collision with patient extraction at 10 p.m. on a holiday.”
For most volunteer firefighters, this is their attitude toward their work. But Willis isn’t like most.
Willis is the emergency medical services coordinator for Augusta University Medical Center and also a PRN for the Center of Operational Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. In his spare time, he’s a volunteer firefighter in Monetta, South Carolina.
The biggest difference between him and most volunteers is that he’s 47 years old, and just became a firefighter a couple of years ago.
Willis grew up in Gwinnett County in Georgia and got a taste of firefighting as a teenager. He was a fire explorer and they taught him basic firefighting skills. They went to fire scenes working to set up rehab and would put the trucks back in service after fire calls. It was then that he became a medical first responder and fell in love with EMS.
In 2011, he moved to Monetta and was working full-time with Gold Cross EMS. It wasn’t until 2016, when he joined Augusta University, that he was able to better balance work and personal life. He decided to become a volunteer firefighter in 2020, something he said was a no-brainer for him to do.
“The first resume I ever wrote, the heading of it was to give back to my community. I’ve also dedicated all of my career to that in one way or another. This is just that extra layer of giving back to my community,” said Willis. “These are my neighbors, neighbor’s friends, family, and it just builds that stronger community relationship.”
Today, the majority of fire departments in the United States are volunteer. In Monetta, a rural area, their department covers 85 square miles and over 3,000 people. They only have 31 members, so the volunteer workload can become time consuming, especially since he’s the only paramedic on the side of town where he lives.
“I run the majority of the medical calls. I run calls at night, weekends and on holidays, so it’s basically another full-time job. Since I’ve started there, I have given 1,600-1,800 hours of community service to them,” added Willis.
Going from outside of a fire as an EMT to inside the blaze as a firefighter is a different animal, Willis explained.
“I’ve been involved in fires from the EMS side so I was desensitized to it. The actual going into the fire was a little different; I don’t know how to explain that part. It was just a different environment, different experience.”
Even the training to become a certified firefighter was different for him, since he was 46. Most volunteers are years — even decades — younger than him. Willis is the first to admit the aches and pains last longer compared to those half his age.
His roles at Augusta University carry over to his volunteering. With such a large area to cover, split-second decisions have to be made: Which fire station is closer? What’s the right apparatus to take? Who else may be responding? Then, once on site, what’s the best way to access a scene and stabilize the situation? And what equipment is needed? All of those factors come into play when every second can be the difference between life and death.
Willis was recently named the Monetta Volunteer Firefighter of the Year. He’s humble about the honor.
“I don’t do things in my life to win awards. It’s all about making the difference in that time of need and that’s all the satisfaction and all the award I need — knowing that I was there to make a difference. Duty, sacrifice and community is such a great personal reward.”
He was also awarded a Big Brother Award by the Monetta Fire Department chief for his work supporting his teammates.
“As I was going through my fire training with my fellow peers, we would go up to the station and I would help them digest the information that we had learned and practice with the skills and help them prepare for the written and the skill test at the end.”
While Willis is old enough to be many of the volunteers’ father, he said their relationship is more of a brotherhood. He encourages anyone with a desire to help their community to donate or become a member of their local volunteer fire department.
“We have our squabbles and things like that, but when it comes down to the actual call, we all respond and act appropriately and professionally to the best of our abilities. So it’s basically just the family helping one another.”