Friday, July 21, 2017  

Hometown Heroes: Volunteer Firefighters


When a fire truck goes racing by with flashing red lights and a whaling siren, most people stop to look and probably wonder where they are going and what is on fire. Unless it is their own house, the house of friend or relative that is on fire, that fleeting glance is probably all most people will have to do with firefighting, save donating some money to the local volunteer fire department once a year. But there are some very special people for whom volunteering to fight fires in their community is more than just something they do, it is a way of life and a commitment to a higher calling that appeals to, what Abraham Lincoln described as, the “better angles of our nature.”
How people come to the decision they want to be firefighters comes in different ways. For Jimmy Walden, now chief of the Lower Middlesex Volunteer Fire Dept, it started when he was a young boy watching the fire trucks roll past his home. Jimmy said he decided he would one day be a fireman. Jimmy has been fighting fires now for 36 years and has been a chief for 20 years. Jimmy’s sons Wit and Taylor have followed in their dad’s footsteps and are both firefighters.  For Bobby Faulkner his interest in firefighting came from his father who joined the fire department after he returned home from service in World War II. Assistant Chief John Robbins got his interest from his grandfather and joined as a junior firefighter at the age of 15.
Bravery and sacrifice are something firemen and women don’t think or talk much about. They seem to be focused on what they need to do to put out the fire, save anyone in the burning building and keep their fellow firemen safe. Yet the danger is always there. You can see it in the eyes of their wives and loved ones every time the siren on the fire house whales or the fire radio tones calling them to a fire.

“Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked. They went there to put the fire out, and got killed. Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.” – Chief Edward F. Croker, NYFD

The Tappahannock-Essex Volunteer Fire Department was founded in 1920 because of the apparent need to fight fires when they occurred. The only apparatus was a hand pulled hose reel.  By 1933 the need was greater and the TEVFD responded by ordering a Ford/Oren pumper that was in use until 1960 and is now restored and kept by the department. In 1949 a new Chevrolet/Oren pumper was purchased. In the intervening years, TEVFD has expanded to meet the growing needs of the area. It now boasts three firehouses and modern apparatus manned by highly trained volunteers.
Joey Reinhardt, President of Tappahannock-Essex  Volunteer Fire Department, became interested as a young child responding as a passenger in his firefighter father’s car. Joey said he had a front row seat to all kinds of emergencies. He said he liked the idea of being able to help someone who needed help. As soon as he turned 18 years old he joined the Tappahannock-Essex Fire Dept. and served 10 years in EMS and has served as a firefighter for 24 years. Joey, like many emergency service people, recognize there is a little bit of an adrenaline rush from the excitement of racing to the scene of what could be a major fire or car wreck knowing that you may be able to make a difference. There is too the awesome challenge that it is your job to help and maybe save a life. Joey said. “You get there and you are the one that has to take care of it.”  Joey recalls being the first on the scene of a head on collision between to vehicles very near his home. There were two entrapments and for the first ten minutes before the fire trucks arrived, he was the only one trained to help. He had his hands full helping patients, sizing up the scene and advising the responding units of what they would be finding when they got there. In the end two patients were flown out by helicopter.

“These Officers, with the Men belonging to the Engine, at their Quarterly Meetings, discourse of Fires, of the Faults committed at some, the good Management in some Cases at others, and thus communicating their Thoughts and Experience they grow wise in the Thing, and know how to command and to execute in the best manner upon every Emergency.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1735

The Urbanna Volunteer Fire Department was chartered December 11, 1973.   The first vehicles were two donated ambulances, a Cadillac from the 5th District Volunteer Fire Department of Clarksville and a Chevrolet from the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department. The first fire truck was also acquired in 1976 with the purchase of a 1972 Ford Ward LaFrance 750 g.p.m. pumper for the sum of $27,000.
Joanna Forrer Worley is an Assistant Chief at the Urbanna Volunteer Fire Dept. She is the daughter of John Forrer who has been fighting fires with the Urbanna Fire Dept for 41 years. Joanna first joined the fire department when she was 23 years so she could spend more time with her father who was a Lieutenant Engineer. In her younger years she had spent a lot of time traveling with her mother to horse shows. Joanna is an expert equestrian in Hunter Jumper classes and now teaches as well as shows horses. She is passionate about being a firefighter. Joanna said, “Once I started doing firefighter classes, I loved it. I like to fight fires. As it happened, we had a lot of fires in one period. I was in the firehouse during the daytime when man power was low. I ended up fighting fires during the day while I was still going to firefighter class.” I asked Joanna if she ever got scared when she entered a smoke filled burning structure. Joanna said, “I wouldn’t call it scared, but I would say I feel cautious. You want to keep a calm head about it because if you don’t, that is when you get in trouble. If you go in with tunnel vision thinking  about trying to put the fire out and not thinking about if the floor is safe, is there anyone in there, where are your guys, that is a problem. If you go in there scared you are not going to be doing anybody any good.” I asked Joanna why she spent so much time being a firefighter. She told me, “Once I took the classes and really learned about it, helping people and knowing I am the first one they see when something is wrong makes me feel good. It is good to know that I am helping somebody in trouble. Once you start doing it, it becomes a passion and you start loving it.” In the family tradition, Joanna’s niece Julianna Solomon is training in the junior firefighter program to one day be a full fledge firefighter.

“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire.”  
– Kurt Vonnegut.

The Hartfield Volunteer Fire Dept. was founded in the early 1960s when several men in Hartfield saw the need for organized fire protection. They went door to door carrying a boot, raising funds that enabled them to complete the building of a fire station. Their first apparatus was a temperamental 1947 fire truck. 
In the late 60s the need arose for more water capability when first responding to a call. The members of the department converted an old gasoline tanker to a water tanker. Originally associated with the fire company in Deltaville, in 1977, the Hartfield satellite station separated from Deltaville and became its own department. In the early 80’s two more bays were added to make room for the addition of a used pumper with jump seats in 1984 and a used Ward-LaFrance pumper in the late 80s. By 1990s Hartfield added a new pumper and tanker. In 2001 the custom-built truck was replaced by a new 1000-gallon crash truck.
Carlton Revere is a firefighter at Hartfield Volunteer Fire Dept as was his grandfather who helped start the department. Back in the day, his grandmother Elizabeth Revere, operated a phone tree and would get a call from the Sheriff about a fire, then start calling people to help come and fight the fire. I asked Carlton what he thought causes people to join a volunteer fire department. He told me, “I think the first thing that motivates a person to do something like this is being compelled to want to help your fellow human being. The second thing certainly is the level of excitement that goes along with doing this type of work. There is definitely an adrenaline rush component to it. And sometimes, quite frankly, you have to remind yourself of that because there is a time commitment and a dedication that you have to have. Sometimes the adrenaline rushes are few and far between. There is a lot of busy work that has to happen and training, fund raising, cleaning the hose, cleaning the truck, cleaning the air packs, cleaning your gear that has to happen between those events. There may be long spells before you have the adrenaline rushes, then you go on a call and help someone then the clarity is brought back as to why you joined to begin with.”
Curt Saunders has been a Hartfield firefighter for 44 years and was in the rescue squad in Deltaville for 8 years. Saunders recently retired from his pharmacy business and now expects to be spending even more time with the fire department. I asked Curt how being a firefighter can change young people. Curt told me, “I have seen several young people who it completely turned around. We take guys that probably wouldn’t pick up their own socks up off the floor when they joined the fire department, then we get them out there washing trucks and cleaning the firehouse and that type of thing. Then there is a complete change around. Those are the kinds of guys who end up in the fire service.”

People are always asking me how is it that firefighters run into a burning building when everyone else is running out. Courage is the answer. – Chief Mike Kennedy in the film Ladder 49

Becoming a volunteer firefighter is a major commitment for the men and women who volunteer to be firefighters as well as their families. They must attend firefighter one and firefighter two classes plus frequent meetings and training sessions. They must know as much about fighting fires as their paid counterparts do in major cities. They and their families are expected to help raise funds for their department through various events. Much of the fundraising is done by the various ladies auxiliaries associated with many fire departments.  Being a volunteer firefighter is not just a job, it is more of a vocation. Fortunately, there are good people who are willing to make the commitment and the sacrifices to help their friends, family, neighbors and strangers. They are truly present day Good Samaritans in turn out gear and riding in red trucks with flashing lights and whaling sirens. They don’t think about bravery and glory, they think about the need to help people and they make a serious commitment to do just that.