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.
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.
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.