The call of the siren

This is the third in a continuing series profiling Rappahannock County’s volunteer fire departments and rescue squads.

Now hiring! Must be willing to work with no prior notice at any hour of the day or night, and outdoors in extreme weather. Work can be hazardous, even life-threatening. Must purchase own equipment. Training and uniform provided. No pay.

Though not a real want ad, this is about as true-to-life as you might get in the never-ending search for volunteers to become firefighters, emergency medical technicians or drivers in Rappahannock County.

“Rappahannock can be very proud of the volunteer system that we have,” says James Bobby “J. B.” Carter Jr., chief of the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. The Amissville company manages to respond to 96 percent of its calls.

Chief J. B. Carter, right, talks about using a gas meter with Amissville company’s Larry Oliver (seated), Colton Clate, left, and Zach Stalls during the squad’s monthly training last week. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

Rappahannock remains the only county in Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley that does not pay for emergency medical service. Many counties also pay their firefighters.

According to Carter, $45,000 is the average annual starting salary of an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Prince William County. There, it takes $1 million a year to staff each ambulance, not to mention the vehicle and equipment costs.

Many newcomers to Rappahannock County are from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. “When they come out here, they just assume that we’re paid,” says Carter. He tells a story.

“I had a lady fussing at me once. ‘What took you so long to get here?’ she asked. ‘The firehouse is just up the road.’”
Carter explained that he was asleep.

“‘Yeah, your bed’s not that far from the fire truck,’ says the woman.

“Ma’am, my bed is a mile away from the fire station, and that gentleman right there is two miles from the fire station. I had to wait for him to get there.”

The woman asked, “Well, why don’t you sleep at the firehouse?”

“I don’t get paid to do this,” Carter replied.

Clifford Clate, Jr., right, discusses the contents of a fire truck's storage compartments with Carl Lovern and other firefighters during Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue's monthly training exercise. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

The Amissville crew is 47 members strong. “For a small town fire department, we’ve got a very good group of people,” says Carter.

Sheila Smith and John L. Pearre responded to an inner call to serve. They joined the Amissville squad. Smith teaches second grade at Rappahannock Elementary School. At home one summer day, she heard a call on a scanner to respond in Culpeper. A few minutes later, the siren sounded in Amissville when apparently Culpeper could not respond.

“If I could drive (an emergency vehicle), I could help,” Smith said to herself. She took the emergency vehicle operator course (EVOC).

“Once I got EVOC (certification), everyone convinced me to get EMT.” At that point, Smith says, laughing, she was “sucked in.” Seventeen years later, she’s still an EMT and serves as the group’s secretary.

Amissville’s siren blared for Pearre as he drove past the station 18 years ago. As a retired accountant for the U.S. Navy, he had his days free and wanted to participate in a new activity. A day or two later, he stopped by the station to ask, “How can I help?” Pearre took Carter’s suggestion of learning to be a driver. Later, he trained as an EMT. Now he runs the weekly bingo game at the station, which nets $15,000 to $20,000 a year.

Nothing exciting happened on the farm where Jack Atkins grew up. Like Pearre, he wanted to be involved with something. He gave the Amissville Volunteer Fire & Rescue a try. For more than 50 years, he’s served as an EMT, a driver, and a firefighter. During the day, he worked as a road construction engineer. Now the company’s president and semi-retired, he works part time as the erosion and sediment control officer for Rappahannock County.

“It’s all in my family,” says Sandra “Sandi” Carter, about her 21-year stint as an EMT. That also describes how J.B. Carter and Zachary “Zack” Stalls became emergency responders.

Sandi Carter used to live next door to a fire station in Warrenton, where her brother was an EMT. Carter enrolled in an EMT class and married her instructor, J. B. Carter. Sandi Carter works as a bookkeeper, serves as Amissville’s treasurer and occasionally runs calls.

J.B. Carter’s father joined the Amissville group in 1964. For 25 years, he was the EMS captain. Now in his 70s, he still runs calls.

It (public service) is something that is passed down from generation to generation, J.B. Carter says. “It gets instilled in you at an early age — service back to the public.” He joined the company when he was 14.

“I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Stalls says about his firefighter-father. The high school senior is a firefighter and an EMT.

“Every walk of life is here; every socioeconomic group that you can just about think of,” says J.B. Carter. “Each one of them brings something different to the table.”

Quick action and teamwork are hallmarks of emergency response. Monthly training drills give firefighters and EMTs opportunities to observe how each works. Smith says that they come to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Learning how to communicate is an ongoing process.

“Leadership sets the tone by setting expectations,” Smith says.

Resolving disagreements before they evolve into splintering conflicts is emphasized, says Atkins. Compromise is often the resolution. The overarching objective is to do the best thing for the company and the community, says Smith.

Trust. Love. Closeness. Acceptance., Smith uses these words to describe relationships in the company.

“We’re more or less like a family,” J. B. Carter says.

Company members, especially newer ones, may not see much of their blood-related family. Training to become a firefighter takes two nights a week, plus every third Saturday, for five months. EMTs train for 150 hours over five months.

Company chiefs spend at least two to three nights every week with their duties. Carter outlined his week. Monday night — bingo. Tuesday night — teaching. Wednesday night — EMS training drill. Friday night — association meeting.

Rappahannock’s emergency responders are aging, observes J. B. Carter. The average company member is in his/her early 40s.

“We went to a fire the other day, my assistant chief and I, and another chum,” says Carter. “We looked around and said, ‘Whew! We’re getting old.’ ”

Organizations need to bring in new and younger blood to ensure continuity. Recruiting volunteers has become tougher in Rappahannock County.

“Our younger members can’t afford to live here, unless somebody has willed or granted you land,” J. B. Carter says. His father gave him land where he built his home. Otherwise, he says, he never could have afforded to buy property in Rappahannock. This is the third in a continuing series profiling Rappahannock County’s volunteer fire departments and rescue squads.

“Our population in Rappahannock County has aged so much that it’s hard to get people to come,” says J. B. Carter.

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.

5 Comments

  1. Shortly after we moved to Rappahannock County a few years ago, both my husband and I joined WVFR, so – arguably – I am biased.

    I cannot think of a greater group of people (true of the other volunteer companies too). Are they perfect, certainly not, but they take their volunteer service to their community very seriously, and by and large do it very well. And they do it on a very little budget, some of which they have to raise themselves through endless breakfasts, bingo, concerts, trail rides and what not. For example, WVFR had to raised 40% of their operating fun in 2009. They have to raise funds to help pay for some of the equipment too. And with a new tanker close to 1/2 million dollar, that’s a lot of fundraising.

    It is not a job for the faint of heart, whether EMS, Firefighter and support! And they do it for free – in ddition to their real job. And they put in hours of training included state & federal mandated training. WFVR volunteers provide about 12,000 active volunteer hours – pretty impressive, don’t you think?

    It would be a significant expense for the county to switch to paid staff. According to the article: “According to Carter, $45,000 is the average annual starting salary of an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Prince William County. There, it takes $1 million a year to staff each ambulance, not to mention the vehicle and equipment costs.” The entire county budget is only $21 million, so the impact of such a move would be quite costly. “beenthere” should bring his concerns and idea to his supervisor for a fact-based discussion. Or see if he can provide help to his local volunteer companies. They are always looking for talents.

  2. Unlike Mr. Piantadosi, I do usually get involved in these discussions. God bless our volunteers.
    Maybe “beenthere”, you should consider becoming one. These are ciizens who are trained and ready to help at any time of day or night, and in my experience they have done as good a job as any
    professional Fire and Rescue organization in the Commonwealth.
    Don’t pay more taxes. Just send them the check. It will go a lot further.
    Ben Jones

  3. As Mr. Piantadosi explained, Chief Carter shared this story with the intent of illustrating the lack of knowledge some County residents have about their fire and rescue service. Let me clear up any misunderstanding – he was not at all boasting. His objective, which is shared by all the emergency responders I’ve talked with, is to do the best job they can for their communities. Actually, as he spoke, I thought about how he had interrupted his night’s sleep to help this stranger. And these folks do it all the time.

    Regarding your willingness to pay more in taxes in order to improve response time to emergencies, that’s certainly an option that you could discuss with County officials. Having volunteers available during the day, when many are at workplaces a distance away, is particularly an issue. Fauquier County could possible provide a model of paid emergency responders. I believe the day shift is paid, and those who fight fires and run medical calls at night are volunteers like Rappahannock’s. Thank you for your interest.

  4. It’s interesting that they are bragging about why it takes so long to get help when you call 911. If the poor lady had a heart attack she would have been dead. I will gladly pay more taxes knowing that my children will have help in 6-8 min.

    • I don’t usually get involved in these discussions, but I don’t see any of what these firefighters said as bragging. It was our choice, not theirs, to focus this story on the fact that the county’s fire departments in general, and Amissville in particular, do a more than adequate job as all-volunteer force. But that it sometimes takes its toll. The chief’s story was meant to illustrate that people who come out here from more urban or suburban areas arrive with expectations.— Roger Piantadosi, editor

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