“It’s sad to say, but we’re not a volunteer society anymore.”
That’s the assessment of Richie Burke, chief of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department, who as Rappahannock’s former emergency services and emergency 911 coordinator can speak for the county’s other volunteer fire and rescue squads.
Burke was weighing word in recent days from Richmond that the General Assembly had unanimously approved a bill that could help rescue local firehouses like ours that are in dire need of young volunteers.
The bill would allow Virginia teenagers, starting at age 16, to become members of volunteer fire and rescue squads, so long as they participate in non-hazardous activities. Beyond that, more dangerous firefighting duties would require both parental consent and proper certification.
Said the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath: “It’s just like anything else: If you can get young people involved, there’s a better chance they’re going to stick with it.”
Adequate numbers of young volunteer firefighters in counties like Rappahannock never used to be a problem.
“Years ago for people the volunteer firehouses were the center of town, the gathering places,” Burke points out. “There are so many things for youth to do today — kids have phones, they have cars, they have money, they have girlfriends, what do they need with a firehouse?”
Still, the chief welcomes any measure — political or otherwise — that might attract much-needed younger blood to volunteer firefighting, which is so necessary for a rural community’s survival.
“Anything to get youth involved can only be positive. I always like getting younger people involved,” he says. “My youngest volunteer right now is 19 years old, and he’s out of school.”
Now and in the past Rappahannock’s volunteer fire stations have reached out to young people, whether through recruitment drives or visiting schools like Rappahannock County High School, with the hope of persuading them to become members.
“Our younger members in the past have usually been tied to a family member. If you have a father or mother in fire and rescue you are brought up around it, you follow through on that, but getting somebody fresh, who wants to train, that’s another thing,” says Burke.
“I interviewed one younger person a while back, and we laid out what he could and couldn’t do, and he was interested,” he adds. “But I never heard back from him, never received an application.”
One of the youngest-ever volunteers in Sperryville, the chief recalls, not surprisingly had a father who was also a firefighter. But like everybody else who requires a steady job the young man, when old enough, became a paid professional firefighter in Prince William County, and to be closer to work he moved to Warrenton.
“Recruitment and retention is very difficult here,” says Burke, particularly given the county’s unusually low number of young people and lack of employment opportunities.
“We certainly do have a smaller percentage to pick from,” the chief says.