Getting high on doing good

Behind many an executive’s immaculate shirt-front and online journalist’s rumpled tee there beats a frustrated heart, one that longs for heroism and adventure, to perform acts real and brave and true in the amphitheatre of the great outdoors. If in a highly public fashion with the possibility of getting on the evening news, so much the better.

It turns out there is a way to satisfy this urge. "Volunteering" might have rather naff, goody-two-shoes, church fete connotations for you - but think again.

A few years ago, to the bemusement of friends and colleagues, I signed up to train with the Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS), a group of Capetonians who dress up in highly conspicuous outfits and help tackle the fires that rampage with ever greater frequency through the Peninsula’s fynbos.

This was my reportback at the time:

My official reasons for joining are among those I’ve heard voiced by other new recruits: Because I love nature and Table Mountain and want to do something for the environment. Because I want to do something meaningful with my spare time. Because I want to use my skills for the greater good and acquire new ones, which I will also use for the greater good.

I don’t buy any of this. No doubt these are legitimate secondary motivations, but, come on, they’re not the primary reasons ordinary unsanctified people give up their Saturday mornings to slog around Newlands Forest with portapools and fire beaters. The primary reasons are more likely to be along the lines of:

Because the male: female ratio should be in my favour. Because hopefully girls will think I look good in uniform. Because my wife wouldn’t let me join the police reservists. Because the Fire Bokkie has wracked me with guilt since I was five years old. And above all: Because I want to be cool. The reasons people get involved in community service are basically selfish. But as far as the put-upon organisers of volunteer initiatives in a world ungeared towards altruism are concerned, that’s just fine:

“The VWS is a varied group of people who join for very different reasons. Some are looking for friends or relationships; some aren’t interested in the social aspect at all and just want to fight fire. Some are attracted by the macho aspect of firefighting. It doesn’t really matter why they join though.” – Rob Erasmus, VWS General Manager (2007-2009).

Volunteering, whether it involves quelling flames or ladling in a soup kitchen, is often hard, sometimes unglamorous, but nearly always important work. Really wanting to be there doing it – on whatever self-serving basis – is likely to get the job done with greater efficiency and gusto.

And, as my experience in this unfamiliar arena continue courtesy of the VWS, I'm finding there are loads of wonderfully selfish reasons to stick with it.

The VWS in action on Devil's Peak, Cape Town (Photo: John S. Murray)

In search of the helper's high

According to The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research (2007), which analysed two decades of scientific enquiry into the topic, volunteers are fitter, saner, more functional in old age and longer-lived than non-volunteers.

And it’s not because volunteers are superior specimens to begin with. Social scientists believe it’s the volunteering activities themselves that make you healthier: they strengthen community bonds and reduce social isolation, improve self-esteem and foster a sense of purpose and accomplishment – and in so doing reduce the ravages of stress on mind and body.

There’s compelling evidence that volunteering lowers rates of heart disease and depression, and boosts the immune system.

The most tantalising nugget of research unearthed is something called the “helper’s high”: the act of giving your time and services (yes, money works too) has been shown to lead to feelings of calm and mild euphoria, an endorphin-fuelled state similar to the “runner’s high”, or “getting in the zone” during meditation.

I have to say the predominant states I find myself in since joining the VWS were bafflement (What the hell is a Unimog? How do you turn on a Zartek?), and anxiety about messing up on a grand scale. This was triggered by the fundamental lessons of Fire School:

1. Don’t put yourself or others in danger.
2. Don’t break the equipment.

It was rule Number 2 – the thought of wrecking expensive equipment in some spectacular manner – that made me truly afraid. For instance, one of the water pumps has these tiny removable screws without which it is rendered useless. The moment I clapped eyes on them I felt certain that, at some point at the height of fire season, I would be the one doomed to lose them.

Strengthening community bonds

The VWS has around 150 members, and although young white males are in the majority, the different genders, ethnic persuasions, ages and social dysfunctionalities are all well represented. Such an organisation serves as a useful microcosm of the broader community**, but, unlike in certain social settings there, nobody gets snubbed or told to go away. (Unless, perhaps, you’re exposed as a latent pyromaniac or you lose the water pump screws.)

Even given this atmosphere of warm fuzzy inclusivity, however, organisational activities still don’t come easily if you fancy yourself a bit of a lone wolf who prefers to lope far from the herd. I attended the first VWS meeting with a mental scowl: just try subsuming my individuality to the group, go on I dare you.

But whether it’s because there’s something in the (free) coffee served at Newlands fire base, or a subtle form of brainwashing at work, the sulky rebellious individualist act quickly starts to seem very bad form indeed. You no longer want to be an outsider; you want to be an insider, privy to the secret handshakes, the ancient rituals; you want to be a good soldier.

Which brings me to the other classic group bonding mechanism at work here – the common enemy. Firefighting jargon is highly militaristic: one “fights” the fire, which has a "front" and a left and right “flank”; the crack assault squad is called “strike attack”; firefighters do battle in units lead by crew leaders whom grunts such as myself are expected to obey unquestioningly; and, as if all that weren’t sufficient to drive the analogy home, Rob says that he wants his troops to be filled with the desire to “kill” the fire.

The great thing about this particular enemy is that fighting it is like fighting orcs: you can unleash all your pent-up aggression without any of the moral queasiness that complicates war against other human beings.**

A sense of purpose and accomplishment

Not only is a volunteer organisation a place where you’re likely to feel accepted, chances are you’ll feel needed too. The VWS old guard is really very nice to newcomers, making sure you know your presence is valued, and playing down the fact that you’re way down on the chain of command. My first question on arrival at Fire School was “Who’s the boss?” and I was won over by the fact that no-one would give me a definitive answer.

Rob explained that, about nine years into the VWS’ existence, “We learnt that if you treat volunteers well and don’t mess them around, they’re more inclined to stay because they feel appreciated. There’s far lower turnover of members now than in previous years.”

This approach has proved so successful, in fact, that VWS reached its maximum membership quota: future aspirants will need to apply and be interviewed – which allows those already in the fold to indulge in a little smug elitism.

The other salutary effect of being treated with respect, is that you start to believe you may actually be something more than a liability. In other words, if people seem to expect that you’re a capable, worthy human being, you’re less likely to act like an incompetent ass.

Faced with evil little traitorous pump screws, or the mysteries of the Global Positioning System, it just doesn’t cut the mustard any more to throw up your hands and act pathetic. A bold new internal voice chirps up with: Stop being such a total wus and learn how to do it already. You’re a Firefighter now.

In this way you acquire specialised skills and knowledge that your slacker civilian non-volunteer friends are less likely to possess. I now know, for example, that Zarteks and Unimogs are not what I first imagined – invaders from Alpha Centauri about to breach the airlock – but, respectively, two-way radios and water trucks.

I also now know how to do a whole lot of boy scout stuff like tying knots and reciting the phonetic alphabet (alpha foxtrot zulu etc). The application of this may be limited for my life as a whole, but so what? Modern neuroscience tells us that learning skills in adulthood, especially those you're bad at or simply haven’t bothered with since you were 12, helps your brain lay down shining new neural pathways.

Socio-environmental cred

Many claim they have no time to volunteer, but these are often the same people who spend a substantial chunk of their week (and cash) in crowded, artificial, resource-gobbling sweat emporia.

Conventional gymming and sports clubs help keep you in shape, sure, but they’re very twentieth century; they can’t give you the green cred required at the trendiest dinner parties these days.

I thought I’d invented the concept of swopping overpriced membership at soulless gyms for wholesome outdoor pursuits that save the planet as an incidental bonus to getting fit, but it’s in fact already an established trend in the UK, called the “Green Gym” movement. Green gymsters clean up coastlines, hack alien vegetation, build sustainable houses, positively glow with eco-virtue – and get trim at the same time, all for free. Further, ecopsychologists would claim that their mental health also benefits by simply being in the healing presence of nature.

So if you volunteer, and you volunteer at something that involves physical activity, and it’s wilderness-oriented, you could be putting yourself in line for an endorphin triple-whammy.

Elevated fitness levels

The entry-level fitness requirements to be allowed anywhere near the fire line aren’t terribly onerous, but they’re not insignificant either: you have to be able to complete a brisk 30-minute hike carrying four litres of water and a rake hoe (a tool for pulling unburnt vegetation out of the fire and pushing burning bits back into it), and not appear shamefully puffed at the end of it.

But if that doesn’t impress you as sufficiently hardcore, you can always aspire to the next level. To qualify for Strike Attack status, you have to be able to survive an 18-hour endurance epic – something between Survivor and The Blair Witch Project – that involves scrambling around Table Mountain in the middle of the night, wielding wooden crosses, putting plastic bags over your head, jumping fully clothed into the Woodhead Dam and abseiling down its sides. Virgin Active was never like this.

Carrying the cross; VWS mountain survival evaluation. (Photo: Jono Woodhouse)

I’m not that game for making a fool of myself that I’d attempt any of the above, but even so, exposure to VWS should get my fitness levels beyond the basics for becoming one of their footsoldiers. There is nothing like the thought of having to roll up a hose, in full view of a crowd of people, many younger and more physically adept than yourself, as an incentive to adhere to a diet and exercise regime. The uniform is very helpful to this end too. You can get away with looking flabby, out of breath and clueless in civvies, but this becomes more awkward in a bright yellow shirt with “firefighter” emblazoned across it.

Besides which, once you’ve boasted to enough people (yourself included) that you’re a firefighter, not to mention splashing it across the 'Net, it becomes a lot more difficult to slack off in many other areas of life. As in: Should I take the lift or the stairs this morning? Well, now, what would a Firefighter do?

Enhanced mental health

Volunteering ostensibly reduces your risk for mental illness, specifically depression, because, in addition to all the feel-good neurotransmitters with which it floods your brain, it gives you a sense of perspective, shifting your focus healthily outwards onto other problems, instead of obsessively inwards onto your own.

I found myself one coffee-break at the office removing my shoelaces in order to practise tying a reef knot. Whether this demonstrates gaining a sense of perspective or simply replacing old obsessions for new ones, I’m not sure, but it certainly does help get your mind off the usual preoccupations, like earning a living.

Too much of a good thing?

There is one catch to the volunteering-health phenomenon: you have to do enough of it. Research shows that you only start to reap the benefits at 100 community service hours a year (about two hours a week).

But those benefits are real. My GP’s reaction to my blood pressure stats has gone from “Hmm…” to “Beautiful!”, while the only negative effect I can identify thus far is that I seem to be drinking a lot more beer, straight from the bottle too. It seems that whenever I’m about to order a genteel glass of chardonnay I’m brought up short by the thought:

What would a Firefighter do?

*My gay comrades would like to remind us that no group is properly representative of the greater community unless it's 10% homosexual; though, this being Cape Town, they reckon at least a quarter of VWS should comprise gay men. (Surprisingly, because I’d have thought it would appeal in a Village People kind of way, this does not seem to be the case).

**The remark about the moral-free nature of firefighting seemed to annoy Mr Erasmus, so before he and the entire Southern Cape environmental community upbraid me about it, let me quickly add: fire has a dual nature, both helpful and harmful, and the goal should be its management, rather than its eradication. It’s just more fun to think of it in Lord of the Rings terms.

Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development. The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research, Washington DC, 2007. 

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor

Since the original version of this story was published in 2007/8 with Health24 and The Big Issue, the VWS has grown to about 180 members and three fire stations.

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