Volunteer Fire & Rescue: You Don’t Have To Be Paid To Be Professional

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By Audrey Harman

When a fire or other emergency occurs, people are primarily concerned with getting their loved ones rapid and well-qualified help. What they might not stop and think at the time is exactly who these men and women coming to their aid are.  To date, about 55 percent of the fire and rescue services in Prince William County are run by students, business owners, government workers, retirees, homemakers, military members, and people of all sorts of professions and backgrounds coming together as one team.

Volunteers can be “any person 18 years or older in good health,” according to the Prince William County Fire and Rescue Volunteers website, and some departments accept junior members as young as 16 or 17. It is best to check with your local department to learn their specific age requirements to see if you qualify.

Depending on interests and ability, volunteers can be the people on the scene or behind the scenes as administration volunteers. Volunteers staff the fire departments in the county nights, weekends, and holidays. The “majority of the stations and apparatus are owned by and managed by the volunteer departments,” said Steve Chappell, Dale City assistant chief and member since 1989. Currently, with so much of the staffing being volunteers, it saves county taxpayers money.

New changes occurring in the county fire departments will require more of a combination of volunteer and career staff. Since volunteers require the same classes and certifications as career fire and rescue members, and new implementations will require more hours from volunteers, thus there will be more of a sacrifice. Due to the sacrifice of their time, Tom Wood, assistant chief of Stonewall Jackson Volunteer Fire and Rescue and Prince William volunteer of 25 years, said that, “Volunteer companies continue to persevere and overcome in order to maintain service to the community.”

Prince William County is currently serviced by nine volunteer fire and rescue departments, which operate 19 stations throughout the county. These departments are Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton (OWL), Dale City, Dumfries-Triangle Fire, Dumfries-Triangle Rescue, Lake Jackson, Buckhall, Stonewall Jackson, Nokesville, and Yorkshire. Of these, OWL is the oldest, dating to 1938, and Buckhall is the youngest, having emerged in 1987. All of the stations in the county are numbered based on when they are built—the departments gain these stations as needed. According to Prince William County’s fiscal year 2017 budget, new stations are on the horizon as well as reopening of stations under renovations.

According to Wood, due to new requirements, “Stonewall, Nokesville, Yorkshire, and Lake Jackson are routinely sharing members across stations to ensure [they]get staffed.” Because of changes in training, available members of the community are encouraged to join as volunteers to help their local fire stations maintain quality staffing and to make a positive impact.

OWL Life Member Jeff Scheulen said that when he began volunteering in 1975, “there were only two aerial ladder trucks in the county and they were in Woodbridge and Manassas.” By the time they drove halfway across the county, the fire was usually out. Because of that, departments are created as needed to protect the growing population.

All of the various departments in the county are collectively governed under the Prince William Fire and Rescue Association, but run individually, and each has its individual history. The Manassas Volunteer Fire Company, which serves the city of Manassas and has operated since 1892, is independent of the rest of the county.

Though the volunteers are from so many different backgrounds and not all have a career in the field, they are highly trained professionals and receive and must certify at the same level as the paid staff. Emergency medical technicians [EMTs] and firefighters receive six to fourteen months of training to become proficient, and all personnel undergo testing and recertification annually. Wood said, “We train all the time, either taking new classes or through in- station drills.” It’s not unusual, even on holidays, for Wood’s crews to spend several hours at a time to refresh their skills on rescuing victims using rope (rappelling, etc). “We [train]with career members as well, since we all work together on calls and have to know the same skills,” Wood continued. “And whenever new tools, techniques, and protocols come out, we train on them.”

Firefighters in Prince William go through more than 420 hours of training in firefighting, health privacy, infection control, critical incident stress management, CPR, incident management, and hazardous materials and average 100 hours of duty a month. EMTs require approximately 164 hours of training for certification in addition to protocol hours. Apparatus drivers, unit officers, chief officers, and paramedics require additional training as well.

The Prince William County Fire and Rescue Association Recruitment and Retention Committee has a Volunteer Leadership Academy which is a program purposed to fill in any gaps between the technical training required and the expected behavior. Many of the volunteers go on to manage projects and lead people, so this program is designed to help any member prepare to be a successful leader. Many volunteers go on to pursue the fire and rescue service as a profession, and approximately half that number go on to obtain EMS and fire science-related degrees.

Volunteers in Prince William undergo the same training and certifications as career staff. Scheulen said that volunteering led to his career in emergency medical services. “I was interested in public safety and started volunteering without knowing anything about firefighting or EMS,” he said. The certifications from Prince William and his experience with OWL helped him transition into his career. Scheulen also said that, to volunteer, “It takes motivation and dedication to serve the community,” because training and staying an active member takes a lot of time and a love for the job.

Many of the career staff begin as volunteers, so they have the same satisfaction and motivation for doing the work they do. Chappell estimated that 75 percent of the volunteers reside in Prince William County, and if they do not currently, they have at some point (residency is not a requirement).

Chappell initially joined a department in the county because, as he put it, “the opportunities to volunteer with the Fire and Rescue department in Prince William County outweigh those of the other jurisdictions.”

Wood noted, “I joined in Prince William because of how essential volunteers are,” whereas in nearby jurisdictions, “volunteers are supplemental staffing, and career personnel staff all the units in the stations.”

To show thanks for the amazing men and women volunteering to keep our county safe, there are multiple ways—proactive and otherwise—for the community to give back. According to the Prince William County Government website, 20.32 percent of the taxpayers’ dollars fund public safety, and 42.4 percent of the public safety budget goes towards fire and rescue. The volunteer fire and rescue programs receive the majority of their funding from these tax dollars. The money goes towards training and equipment to allow each department to run like a career department would run. Other funding sources include donations, bingo nights, and renting out halls and facilities for events. Said Wood, “Without volunteers, emergency services would be diminished substantially, or costs to county citizens would have to be dramatically increased.”

At night and on the weekend, if you have an emergency, there’s a pretty good chance that a volunteer is responding, and if the emergency is a fire, the chance that a responder is a volunteer is about 100 percent. To keep taxes low and the volunteer fire and rescue resources up to date, it is critical for county citizens to continue their support. If you can’t offer money, donating meals and snacks is also a great way to show your appreciation. Bring your family and stop by your local department to meet the people who put their lives on the line for you and see how these services operate. It is helpful for citizens, young and old, to learn fire safety and prevention along with becoming familiar with basic first aid and CPR.

Buckhall VFD, the youngest department in Prince William, says they are “devoted to supporting the community it serves through outreach and special events such as barbeques, Fire Prevention and EMS Week open houses and station tours, the annual ‘Santa Fest’ and public education.” Check out pwcfirerescuevolunteers.org for your local station (many of which have their own websites) for these types of events, and make sure your children have the chance to meet the volunteers serving your neighborhood as well. Who knows, maybe you can even become a volunteer yourself, either with fire and rescue or with administration, and have the opportunity to keep your community safe. The affect of the combination staff effort on the taxpayers is yet to be determined, and with proposed new stations opening in the near future, there is even more reason to volunteer.

Audrey Harman, a long-time Woodbridge resident, has a BA in creative writing and Spanish from Hollins University and an MA in publications design from the University of Baltimore. She works full-time as an instructional designer and also plays bass in the Old Bridge Community Orchestra. She can be reached at aharman@princewilliamliving.com.


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