This is the fourth in a series of occasional features on the volunteer fire and rescue squads who provide Rappahannock County’s emergency services.
The Castleton Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company is arguably the most isolated of the seven volunteeer fire and rescue departments that serve Rappahannock County, but has learned to deal with it in a number of creative ways.
“You’d be surprised that people in Rappahannock County – we’ll [be in] a parade, and they’ll ask, ‘Where’s Castleton?’ ” says CVFRC Chief Terry Robey.
Also known as Company 5, the 30-member group responds to emergencies in the area generally bounded by Slate Mills, Viewtown, Wharton Hollow and Culpeper County to the south. So one of Company 5’s challenges, Robey says, is the state of the area’s mostly secondary roads. Sometimes the outside-the-district companies that back them up can get to a call faster than they can, even though the Castleton station is closer, according to Paul Komar, the company’s president. He offers Scrabble Road as an example.
“Scrabble is the most winding, twisting, turning road there is,” Komar says, a road where 40 mph is the fastest even an emergency vehicle can safely travel, and where the surface is often bumpy. “You beat the equipment to death getting there,” Komar said. The Sperryville fire and Sperryville rescue companies often arrive before they do at calls in some areas. Castleton also backs the Sperryville companies, as well as the Amissville VFRD.
Another physical issue the Castleton company deals with is low-hanging limbs, says Komar. “We don’t have [U.S. routes] 522 and 211,” he says. All of their territory is two-lane country roads. They learn what their trucks can handle.
“You know your limits,” says Robey. He sees an advantage in that Castleton typically receives more emergency medical calls than fire calls. Ambulances can get almost everywhere, he says. Traveling to medical calls helps the drivers learn the roads and more easily navigate them later in a fire truck.
Robey has walked driveways with Castleton homeowners to see what needs to be changed for a fire truck to have access. Trees may be too big or branches hanging too low for a fire truck to get past, he says. (The county does have a driveway guidance letter, Komar says.)
As of this September, the Castleton company had been summoned more than 130 times this year – and managed to respond to 72 percent of the calls, according to Komar. The company president also that the company was recently joined by a new retiree. As soon as he gets the clearance, Komar says, he’ll be able to answer calls during the day, when many of the emergency medical technicians are away at work.
Which brings up another challenge, one experienced by all the county’s volunteer squads but particularly by one as isolated as Castleton: recruiting new members. The other stations stand out more in their communities, Komar says, using the Washington VFRD – in a central, high-traffic area of the county, just off U.S. 211 and one of the main entrance roads into the town of Washington – as an example. The Amissville company is another, he says.
“Everybody sees it every time they drive up and down 211,” Komar said.
“Companies 2 [Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department] and 7 [Sperryville Volunteer Rescue Department] are somewhat similar,“ said Komar. “They’re going to gain more populace in their organizations as a result of being more visible.”
There is no formal recruitment program. But Komar says he and Richie Burke, chief of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department and the county’s emergency services and 911 coordinator, are developing a common application to be shared by all of the companies.
But the company is making progress, Komar says – it addition to its newest retired member, it currently has four junior members (younger than 16) in its ranks. Two have completed CPR training, Komar says.
Castleton’s fundraising efforts are also affected by its location.
“Because of our physical location, it’s hard to have fundraisers and expect anyone to show up to them,” Robey says. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, and everybody else is off of a main highway.”
“We can’t have a bingo night [a longstanding weekly fundraiser for the Amissville squad] because we won’t get anybody to come,” said Komar. “We don’t have that sign out on the main highway that says ‘Bingo Bingo.’”
The Castleton company has two main fundraisers. In addition to an annual mail campaign, in which some 600 letters go out to the Castleton ocmmunity, the company sponsors a weekly turkey shoot from October through December. Using special shotguns, men and women take aim at target boards every Friday night. Winners receive prizes of meat and/or packaged lunches.
“In a downturn economy, we were giving away what we called ‘lunch pack specials,’ which was ham, bologna, cheese, bread, mustard, mayonnaise – all as one prize – so that the people coming up here shooting could take that home and for the next week, have all their lunches,” Komar said. “That became very popular.”
The company also sells pizza at local events. Komar said he was pleased with the amount of money the company took in this way at the “Hazzard Homecoming” in August.
The Castleton company has been successful enough recently to have purchased a 2008 brush truck. It replaced their hand-me-down brush truck – they were its third owner. It started its service as a utility company truck, and then was converted to a brush truck.
A brush truck comes in handy in fighting fires in Rappahannock. Komar explains that 30 percent of the county’s land, including his own, is in conservation easements.
“With all of the forest there are a lot of brush fires to go to,” Komar said.
Access to water to fight fires is an ongoing issue for the Castleton company. They use ponds in the area of the blaze to fill their tank. The tank is shuttled to fill another tank at the fire site. But the firefighters can’t always get to the pond. Robey remembers one particular fire, where “the most perfect pond” was nearby – but some of the trucks couldn’t get to it, he says. “Unfortunately, some of the driveways around here, people just don’t realize, we’re going to be in trouble,” Robey says. “They’re going to be in trouble if we really need to get to them, because we can’t.”
When they’re not responding to calls, the Castleton company is also involved in a project to provide 911-visible house number signs to anyone in the county who orders one. The white reflective numbers on a royal blue background are easy to see at night – by first-responders and others. They’ve sold 900, Komar says, and want to sell 2,000 more to cover the entire county.
Regardless of the low profile, the Castleton VFRD and the Castleton community get along well. Komar says he feels his neighbors’ support.
“We shoot guns on Friday nights in the wintertime until 11 or 12 o’clock at night and nobody complains.” Komar says with a laugh. “Obviously, we have some clout.”