Chester Gap’s Angelica Vittitow fills critical role in strained volunteer system
There is no average day at Chester Gap Volunteer Fire and Rescue.
Fire Chief Todd Brown or his deputy, both of whom are retired, are usually on hand. But calls come in unexpectedly and someone always needs to be at the ready — for anything.
The not knowing used to be the hardest part about the job for volunteer Angelica Vittitow, the 25-year-old captain of Chester Gap’s emergency medical service (EMS). The greater challenge for her now, perhaps, is finding a way to make a job she does out of devotion to her community into a career.
“I’m glad that at this time in my life I can [volunteer], because my job is flexible and I live at home so I don’t have a lot of expenses,” she said. “But most young people in Rappahannock, they can’t afford to spend the amount of time that is required to run a station.”
Those stations have been holding their own and meeting benchmarks thanks to an all-volunteer system, the last one left in Virginia. But volunteers are aging, with nearly half of all responders age 50 or older, according to an annual study of all stations.
Vittitow is young by comparison, but she is hardly inexperienced. She responds to the majority of the EMS calls that come into the area and has been named Chester Gap’s EMS of the year several years running.
She also recognizes that the volunteer system has to change to remain sustainable.
“If you have a job, it’s really, really hard to give enough,” she says.
Like many people her age, Vittitow cobbles together a mix of jobs to make ends meet. She cleans houses and picks up home aide work when it’s needed. For years she helped out on her sister’s vegetable farm and hopes to start a cut-flower business with flowers she grows in her garden.
Having odd jobs gives her the flexibility to respond to calls at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t make it easier.
The strain can lead to volunteer burnout, particularly since a growing number of regulations, training requirements and expenses has put even more demands on EMTs. Even basic training takes about 200 hours of classes over several months.
There’s another constraint for young people in the county.
“You have the problem of not enough work in this area, but you also have just the way our culture is now where people aren’t looking to the fire department for their place in the community,” Vittitow says, sitting inside a recreation hall above the station. “That’s how volunteerism started. This is where you would come in, you would hang out with your friends but you would also do good work together.”
No one’s forcing you to do it
That’s what a patient once told Vittitow when she shared how busy the station had been.
In a way she’s right. Vittitow signed up to volunteer. But that doesn’t detract from the demands of the job or the reality that paid positions are going to be needed if older volunteers leave and aren’t replaced by younger ones.
If calls even come in. A back-up paging system kicked in Sunday after the main one was struck by lightning, adding maintenance work to an aging system that is slated for an upgrade. Until that happens, however, responders don’t always hear calls.
Having a reliable paging system “is crucial” for a volunteer network, since people aren’t sitting around at the stations, said Kevin Williams, part-time emergency management and emergency services coordinator for Rappahannock.
Vittitow is one who is often around in part because she’s acutely aware of the challenge other volunteers face balancing work and family with responding to calls.
As part of her commitment, she helps with membership drives and continues to pull in other young people when she can, including a young girl from Front Royal currently enrolled in EMT class. More importantly, she’s also serving as a model for other young volunteers at a time when it’s getting harder to recruit them, not just in the county, but across the country.
“If I had four more of her I’d be in great shape,” Brown says. “She is very dedicated, she knows what it is to be a volunteer. She understands that she’s here to help the community and she does a great job at it.”
One argument for retaining an all-volunteer system is that often people care more — about the community, about the equipment — when they’re not just there for a paycheck. The challenge is getting young people involved.
And while Brown is aware that Vittitow has been a blessing, he says he’s “scared to death” that he could lose her to a better opportunity.
Building a sense of belonging
Vittitow joined the station as an EMT because she thought the free training could pave the way to a paid position as a paramedic.
“I noticed the ambulance going down the road all the time and thought, ‘well, that might be fun,’” she says. “I had no idea what that might mean.”
It’s meant grant writing and paperwork and responding to calls at all hours for no pay. It has also meant taking on responsibilities she couldn’t have anticipated.
Shortly after completing her training, Vittitow was thrown into the top spot at Chester Gap’s emergency service when EMS captain Bradley Dodds passed away unexpectedly. It’s largely out of a sense of duty that she has continued to devote so much of her time to the station.
“My goal is that we’ll get enough people at some point that the burden is not going to be as intense. But until that time, I just can’t say no.”
Vittitow says she has also learned a lot from working with the squad: how to handle stress and better communicate with people. Her family moved into the county when she was four and she says volunteering has helped her get to know her community and given her a sense of belonging.
It has also taught her to open up and take charge of situations, something she struggled with as a shy, reserved child.
The learning curve has been sharp in a community whose fire-fighting roots run deep and she wishes she had a mentor with more EMT experience around regularly.
The rescue squad in Chester Gap is only certified to perform basic emergency medical services and needs to call in assists from neighboring Warren County for more advanced life support, such as serious trauma or starting IVs.
Williams says he’s proud that the all-volunteer system is performing well, and saving the county a lot of money by doing so. But it needs to start thinking about the future, since the loss of just a handful of key players could really leave a void.
A written agreement issued last October between the county government and the volunteer fire and rescue association proposed options for hiring career firefighters and emergency medical responders. And Williams says he is helping the association develop a strategic plan for the years to come.
Until then, Vittitow says she’ll continue to draw on the sense of purpose and impact that comes from volunteering.
“But if they did start paying people, I would definitely be looking into applying for a job.”