Family ties strong at Flint Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue

Flint Hill Chief Bruce Williams replaces a light bulb in preparation for the annual carnival. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

This is the first in a series profiling Rappahannock County’s volunteer fire departments and rescue squads. It seemed only fitting to start with Flint Hill since its annual parade and carnival are this weekend.

It’s a family affair at the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department (VFRD).

“I think everybody gets along,” said Bruce Williams, the department’s longtime fire chief. “It’s just like a small family here.”

But the members are more than “like a small family.” Many firefighters and rescue people really are family.

Ed and Carolyn Lee Birckhead, and Nikki and Stewart Settle, share a home away from duties at the department.

Dinosaur delights, among many others, are prepared by members of the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Department. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

Capt. Kim Hogan leads the rescue team and her husband, Eric Phillips, drives an ambulance. One of them is usually at the firehouse.

Wanda Bird is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Her husband, Richard, is a firefighter and an ambulance driver. Like his parents, Wayne Bird is an EMT and a firefighter.

CW Blosser recently returned after an absence. His son, Triston Blosser and partner, Melody Smith, joined too.

“It just runs in the family,” said Williams, whose clan has the largest representation. Capt. Mike Williams is the chief’s son. His cousin, Kevin Williams, serves as an EMT. Williams’ brother was a firefighter. And his father was a charter member of the Flint Hill VFRD in 1954. Last but not least, the chief’s wife, Karen Williams, is a firefighter and part of the rescue team.

“She had to join in order to see me, that’s what she says,” said Williams.

“I’m probably going to have my granddaughter following in my son’s footsteps,” he added.

The 11-year-old granddaughter is the department’s Junior Miss for selling the most raffle tickets in her age group.

Sometimes members come to the firehouse just to chat, Williams said. Or they might settle into the cushy couch and watch the large-screen television.

Firefighter Sherry Hamill-Huff is also an ambulance driver, and is married to the department’s vice-president. Frank Huff was fire chief for 25 of his 40 years in the Flint Hill VFRD. His father was a charter member along with Williams’ father. Like his mother, their son, Robbie Huff, is a firefighter and an ambulance driver.

Hamill-Huff explained that, when there’s not an emergency, children accompany parents to the firehouse. They are immersed in “an atmosphere of wanting to help.”

For some, being a part of the fire department becomes “a kind of a whole lifestyle,” explained Hamill-Huff.

The younger ones are often drawn by the tension and sense of urgency. “The lights and sirens are exciting,” said Hamill-Huff.

Firefighter Karen Williams records numbers for the Zoo Dip game, part of the annual carnival. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

“It’s an adrenaline rush. When those tones go off, you ought to see people coming,” said Bill Welch, chuckling. “You don’t want to be on the road when they’re answering a fire call. They want to get to the fire as quickly as they can and put it out.”

Welch, who along with Williams is retired, serves as president, EMT and driver and firefighter. Both men are motivated by a desire to enrich Flint Hill.

“You don’t get a plaque or anything you can put on the wall, and that’s not what I’m looking for,” Welch said. He started helping at the firehouse when he was nine years old.

“We’re here to help the community as much as we can, anything we can do for the community,” said Williams, who has been part of the Flint Hill VFRD since 1996. After growing up in Chester Gap, he was a member of that volunteer fire and rescue department for 30 years, 14 of which he was the chief.

“It’s about giving back,” said Welch, who was born and raised on a farm in Flint Hill. “You can’t always be a taker.”

Last year the Flint Hill VFRD was dispatched 454 times.

“We live by pagers,” said Williams. He answered 15 ambulance and 14 fire calls in July 2010.

The Flint Hill department had an 87 percent response rate for 2009. The ambulance requires a driver and an EMT. One firefighter cannot respond to a call.

“You can’t leave the firehouse without two,” said Williams. Four are preferred. “It’s always 2 in, 2 out [of the structure] at all times. You can get by with 2. It depends on what size fire it is.”

A house fire automatically summons three companies: two engine companies and a tanker. If a house in Flint Hill caught fire, Flint Hill and the Sperryville VFRDs would be called, as well as Chester Gap for their tanker, Williams said.

“Everybody works. We all volunteer,” Williams said. “Sometimes we don’t have the help.”

No one has an employment situation where he or she can leave to respond to calls. Even if this were possible, many work outside of Rappahannock County and are too far away to be helpful.

“The job comes first,” said Williams. “A lot of them that works during the day, they get up during the night and run calls.” Responding to a call takes an average of two hours.

Afterward firefighters have to clean the hoses and trucks need to be cleaned, and equipment put away. Williams remembered a call where they arrived at midnight in Sperryville and didn’t return to the station until 6 a.m.

“Then they get up the next day and go to work,” Williams said. “It’s hard on some of these guys.”

In 1989, a field caught fire. The emergency call came during the day. Knowing that few firefighters would be available, Hamill-Huff went out with the crew. She built a fire line to keep the flames from spreading. Two weeks later, she delivered her son. Her memory of the incident is hazy, but she does recall that clearing that fire line was uphill all the way.

The department has an embarrassment of riches in their numbers. Ten people joined in the past three months. Williams and Welch are tickled pink. They say that a few came, and told others.

“It was just by word of mouth, really,” Williams said.

“That sure does take a lot of the pressure off,” Welch added.

The Flint Hill crew ranges in age from 16 to 70. But 45 used to be the age of the youngest member, Hamill-Huff remembered..
“What I like about it is they’re younger people,” said Williams, who is 65. “We want the younger people.”

Welch agreed. “They’re our future.” He would like to grow their membership so that they could staff the firehouse around the clock and answer all of their calls.

A new bay is rising from the ground. It will provide space to maneuver trucks, and include an office and a day room. Welch has applied for a FEMA grant to build a training room and remodel the kitchen. A positive answer from another grant application will replace the company’s 14-year-old ambulance.

Williams recognizes the challenge of “trying to get enough money to keep the building going and keep the trucks running.” And, turnout suits — what firefighters wear to fight a fire — must be replaced every 10 years. Each firefighter has a suit and each costs about $2,500.

The Flint Hill VFRD will receive $42,500 from the county coffers for 2010 expenses. And, the county pays insurance premiums. Expenses for the past six months total $46,000. In 2009, the group spent about $100,000.

To make ends meet, the department organizes dinners, breakfasts, raffles and mails a donation request every year.
Welch is enthusiastic about their yard sales.

“You ought to see the stuff that people give us,” Welch said, He appreciates the quality of the donations. “We don’t do too bad on that. Every dollar helps, and every dollar counts.”

A four-night annual carnival, held next to the firehouse, is Flint Hill’s largest moneymaker. This year’s carnival is currently underway, having began Wednesday to run through Saturday, Aug. 21 (Friday night is the parade). The fire department will raffle a pickup truck and a Black Angus heifer. They’ll also sell food.

The crew’s next fundraiser is a tractor pull.

“Anything to try to generate dollars so we can survive,” Welch said.

Williams and Welch appreciate how the community supports them.

“We had a breakfast on a snowy morning [2010], and raised over a thousand dollars,” said Welch. “It was snowing to beat the band, and about a hundred people came out to support that breakfast.”

Most people in their coverage area have are long-time residents. But there’s a mixture, Williams said.

“You know what they say about Rappahannock, don’t you?” asked Welch, laughing. “ It’s where hippies go to die.” He described Flint Hill folks as “very giving, loving, and supportive.”

“We’re here to protect the people and their homes,” Williams said. He would know. Like Welch, he’s hung around a firehouse since he was a child.

“I’ve been in so long, it’s in my blood,” said Williams.

The Flint Hill VFRD is located at 945 Fodderstack Road. Its Web site is www.flinthillfireva.com.

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About Alisa Booze Troetschel 30 Articles
By some folks' standards, Alisa Booze Troetschel is a newcomer. She moved to northwest Virginia two years ago after completing graduate studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has photographed, written and edited for local, regional and national magazines and newspapers, while delighting in the beauty surrounding her new home.