‘Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat’

This uneven documentary still manages to honor volunteer firefighters

Michael Clark

NR | 1h 31m | Documentary | 2023

Shot in seven small towns across the country, the documentary “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” (“Cool Hat”) could easily be pegged as something targeted mostly at rural audiences, since people living in those areas can easily relate to the relaxed, no-frills content steeped heavily in hearty Americana.

Jointly financed by the John Deere Company and the National Volunteer Fire Council, “Cool Hat” displays levels of commitment, sacrifice, selflessness, collective intestinal fortitude, and old-fashioned small-town values that are virtually absent on both coasts and in most big cities.

 Future firefighter Jenna Dunbar in "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)
Future firefighter Jenna Dunbar in "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)

The Tubbs Fire

The movie opens in Santa Rosa, California, with future firefighter volunteer Jenna Dunbar revisiting the site of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which destroyed over 5,500 homes (including hers) and claimed nearly 22 lives. Even years after the event, the earth there remains scorched, and rebuilding is still in its infancy stages.

Ms. Dunbar’s backstory, not addressed until the final third of the movie, is beyond impressive. She could have easily become a professional athlete in a multitude of sports, yet chose to go the route of noncompensated firefighting.

First-time co-directors Gary Matoso and Cameron Zohoori present a number of impressive firefighting factoids along the way.

Ben Franklin

U.S. volunteer fire companies are older than the country itself, with the first—the Union Fire Company—being founded in 1736 by none other than Benjamin Franklin, who founded the first firefighting company.
There are over 700,000 volunteer firefighters in over 75 percent of the United States, with the remainder covered by paid professionals. The need for volunteers has never been greater than now, as their numbers have dropped some 27 percent over the last decade. This is due in part to the retirement of those no longer physically able to do the job, and a lack of qualifying volunteers—and there is the rub.
 Trainees in North Bend, Wash., in "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)
Trainees in North Bend, Wash., in "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)

Based on what is presented in the film, virtually anyone can become a volunteer in some capacity, whether it is interior fighting (the most physically demanding), exterior (water hose, crowd control, and EMT coordination), administration, or local fundraising.

Of the latter, residents in Rixeyville, Virginia, capitalize on the large local population of horses by offering for-fee horse trail rides with the profits given to their firehouse. In the heavily Hasidic-populated Monsey, New York, volunteers are relegated to exterior work because interior fighters cannot have facial hair, and Hasidic Jews are strictly forbidden to shave their beards.

Training Days

In another segment taking place in North Bend, Washington, we witness a dozen or so hopeful recruits, all from different walks of life, undergoing a rigorous, 12-week training program that depicts in great detail the level of tactical acumen and the physical demands required to perform interior firefighting.

For me, the most impressive and moving portion of the movie is the part dedicated to Alan Michl living in Exeter, Nebraska, population of 516 as of the 2020 census.

For over a quarter century, Mr. Michl has been not only a volunteer firefighter but also a school bus driver and has served as mayor. Shari, Mr. Michl’s wife of 41 years, is also a volunteer firefighter.

 Longtime firefighter Alan Michl in "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)
Longtime firefighter Alan Michl in "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)
In Wheaton, Maryland, the largest populated city shown here (over 52,000), we get an idea of the number of calls—over 30,000 per year—handled by just two firehouses and the toll it takes on volunteers. Oddly enough, it is during the Wheaton segments where any actual “in the field” work is shown, and it is not firefighting but rather performing EMT duties during a traffic accident. This is where the filmmakers miss the boat.

Where’s the Fire?

Making a movie about the finer points of firefighting without any actual depicted firefighting is problematic. It’s like watching football players practicing on the field before a game without ever seeing any of the game.

Mr. Matoso and Mr. Zohoori slip up a bit when profiling a multigenerational firefighting family based in Beeville, Texas, by drifting away from the narrative at hand and including melodramatic details of their personal lives.

It is also during the Beeville portion where an official attributes the increase in recent fires to “climate change” without providing any form of scientific data to back up his claims. On the upside, the official doesn’t use the term “global warming.”

On the whole, “Cool Hat” is an inspirational and uplifting film profiling salt-of-the-earth Americans of every race, creed, and gender working together to protect us 24/7 without any desire for monetary reward.

Their service should be praised and acknowledged by all of us in perpetuity.

 Poster for "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)
Poster for "Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat." (Sub-Genre Films)
Released in a handful of theaters on July 7, “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” can be viewed on home video and Prime Video. The film's website also includes screenings hosted by various fire departments.  
‘Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat’ Documentary Directors: Gary Matoso, Cameron Zohoori Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes MPAA Rating: Not Rated Release Date: July 7, 2023 Rating: 3.5 out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.