This is the sixth in a series of occasional features on the volunteer fire and rescue squads who provide Rappahannock County’s emergency services.
A sense of purposeful, controlled energy pervades the walls of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department, based on U.S. 211 just west of Sperryville. And those walls are expanding.
The 25-member crew has been building a new three-bay building behind the existing structure. Started in November 2010, it measures 50 feet wide and 72 feet long, with 16-foot ceilings.
“It’s been a slow go because we’ve done it ourselves, but that’s saved us a lot of money,” said Cody Dodson, who is trained at the second level of firefighting.
Members have accomplished everything, except excavating the foundation and the masonry work to raise the cinder block walls. About five or six regularly work on the new building, Dodson said.
“All of us have the know-how of how to do things and get it done the proper way,” said Dodson.
According to Richie Burke, chief of the department, the sweat equity has saved about $100,000. Installing heat and electricity, and wiring the bay doors, are the remaining items on their to-do list. Down the road, he said, the company wants to add a bathroom.
Acquiring Rappahannock County’s first aerial, or ladder/tower truck, in December 2010 prompted the construction, Dodson said. On it is a 75-foot aerial tower. While the older vehicles would barely squeeze inside through the doors, the new truck had to stay outside. Trucks overall are increasing in size, said Dodson. He notes that the new ladder truck was used at the Sperryville Schoolhouse fire in December.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to upgrade our equipment to modern equipment through the [federal] firefighters’ grants,” Burke said. “We’ve been extremely lucky over the last eight years.” Grants provided half of the funding to purchase two used trucks; they borrowed the remainder.
In the past eight years, SVFD has received four grants totaling almost $475,000. Burke writes the grant proposals, and attends training classes to get pointers on how to put together the applications. Considering equipment costs, the funding is sorely needed.
“It’s hard to comprehend that something on six wheels can be so expensive,” Burke said. One truck costs $409,000. The price tag on the other was $365,000.
“It’s not extravagance that you’re spending,” Burke said. “That’s the cost of doing business.” When fundraising it’s difficult, he says, to convince people of the required amounts when the cost of the vehicle is more than the cost of their house.
The usage of social media may help with fundraising. The department has a web site, which Burke maintains, and a Facebook page is updated weekly with pictures, status and events, and public safety messages. On Facebook, the department has more than 400 “likes.”
“It does get you out there,” Burke said. But it is difficult to trace a donation to a social medium.
“Well, you can’t really tie to it,” Burke said. “I can’t say that these five letters came in with money came in because they read about us on Facebook or Rappnet or the [website] page, but I think, all in all, it goes hand in hand. People can’t do something if they don’t know about it.”
Between the Facebook page and the website, the department does achieve a presence. As of a few months ago, the site had been viewed 230,000 times since December 2008, Burke said. There are only 7,000 people in the county, he noted.
The website includes the history of the company, which formed in 1947, and pictures. Recording the stories of the older ones is valuable to Burke. He also uses the site to send mass emails to the department’s members.
“You kind of got to move into the new technology – use every tool you can,” said Burke.
More current stories might first appear on Facebook. “We can tell the story of the accident we had or the house fire we had,” said Burke.
“It’s instantaneous gratification [of wanting to know what happened],” Burke said.
“There’s a lot of people in the area that look at it [Facebook] daily, hourly,” he said.
Department members range in age from 16 to mid-70s. Providing that they can find work close by, members tend to stay in the department, building upon their knowledge base.
“I think for our group we’re pretty stable with the people that have been here,” Burke said about the company’s low turnover in membership.
The department’s challenge is recruiting younger people. Many younger members join because an older member of their family is a firefighter in the department.
“It’s getting tougher to get younger people to volunteer,” Burke said.
“If you go back 20 years ago there weren’t as many things for kids to do in a rural area,” Burke said. “Now kids have cell phones, got money, got nice cars.”
Burke emphasizes that the department needs support members – those who help with fundraising, accounting, maintaining the property – just as much as firefighters.
The members are dedicated. Most members drop by the station once every day.
“It’s your second home,” Burke said, and smiled. “And probably if you ask some of your spouses, it’s your first home.”
While the Washington and Castleton departments back them up and vice versa, Burke said, Sperryville has “a fair amount” of firefighters who can respond to daytime calls.
All in all, “we work very, very well together as a group,” said Burke. ”That’s a big plus. If you can’t work together, you can’t succeed.”
The fully enclosed new building is as good a symbol as any of that teamwork.