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Steve Taylor still remembers the call.
A drunk driver had crossed the median on Interstate 295, slamming his pickup truck head-on into an oncoming car, killing an elderly couple on impact.
When crews arrived, they discovered a 6-year-old girl in the backseat and were able to cut her out of the wreckage.
She had survived. So had the drunk driver.
“He wasn’t hurt at all, but he killed those two people,” Taylor said.
After the crash, Taylor learned that the elderly couple in the front seat were the little girl’s grandparents and had been caring for her after the death of her parents two years earlier.
“Those were the only people she had left,” he said.
Calls like this one stick with you, Taylor said. But the 22-year volunteer and district chief of Henry Volunteer Fire Company, and hundreds of other dedicated volunteers, keep coming back, knowing the community needs them.
Volunteers like Taylor are the backbone of Hanover’s hybrid career/volunteer Fire-EMS system and are essential to the department’s success, according to Chief Jethro Piland.
“They’re actually woven into the fabric of the design of our department,” Piland said. “There’s no way we could do what we do without the volunteer support and without their help.”
Hanover County has approximately 794 active volunteers, which includes administrative, auxiliary and operational personnel. Of that total, about 355 are actual responders.
Of the 130 career staff, 108 run calls. Overall, the numbers break down to about a three-to-one split between volunteers and career personnel, respectively.
However, because Hanover uses one single standard of training for its fire and EMS personnel, there isn’t a real distinction among the ranks of volunteers and career staff in the field.
“A firefighter is a firefighter is a firefighter and an officer is an officer is an officer,” Piland said. “We are a truly combination system and if you’re qualified to ride in the right front seat and command the fire, it doesn’t matter whether you’re career or volunteer; it matters that you’re educated and experienced to do the work.”
Established in 1890, Ashland Volunteer Fire Company was Hanover’s first volunteer fire department. Volunteers would dominate the ranks for more than a century.
While career staff came on board in the late 1980s at an administrative level, paid responders did not enter the mix until the late 1990s, when Hanover first began using paid EMTs and firefighters. Hanover’s rescue squads and fire stations merged in 2002 to create today’s combined Fire-EMS organization.
The first career firefighters were deployed between the Doswell and Farrington stations, mainly to fill in during daytime shifts when volunteers were at work or unavailable.
The move came at the request of volunteer organizations, which were facing increased call volume due to the growth experienced in Hanover throughout the 1990s.
Taylor recalled that in the 1980s, Hanover was extremely rural. Most of the county was still made up of farmland and small communities. Then, Hanover grew. Homes began popping up over the next two decades, and with the growth came increased call volume.
“The call load increased triple, quadruple what it used to be, and we needed help during the day, sometimes in the evenings,” Taylor said. “We couldn’t man and serve the community properly without having the career staff to help us out.”
Piland added that covering daytime shifts became increasingly difficult for some volunteers whose day jobs no longer allowed them to leave to run calls.
“A lot of our volunteers…owned their own business, or they were farmers or worked at the local store, and there was some flexibility of ‘Hey boss, I’ve got a fire call, can I go to this?’” Piland said. “Now you’ve got stronger industries, stronger businesses and the flexibility to let people off work to go respond to the fire call, it’s not happening.”
While career staff were originally divvied out at the request of stations, Piland said his department now takes into consideration factors such as call volume, response time, and manpower when making assignments. Staff are moved to different stations and shifts based on current needs.
“We try to make an educated decision along with the volunteers as to where to put staff,” Piland said.
Sometimes it’s a moving target. A county like Hanover, made up of two polar opposites – dense, suburban areas and rolling farmland – poses unique difficulties for emergency responders.
Both Piland and Taylor were quick to say that at no point will a call go unanswered – when volume overwhelms a station, help comes from another of Hanover’s Fire-EMS stations or from a neighboring jurisdiction – but in rural areas, responders have to deal with the sheer geography and reality that it takes longer to reach those in need.
“I moved to the country to get away from the city life, the suburban life, but it takes longer to get an ambulance to my house, it takes longer to get a firetruck to my house. Those are challenges we have,” Piland said.
Once crews arrive at a fire call in a rural area, they then face the challenge of extinguishing the blaze without being able to tap in to public water sources.
During those calls, departments use what’s called a “water shuttle” system, where firefighters bring water to the scene of a fire via tanker trucks.
In Hanover’s more suburban or urban areas, the problem is volume. Stations in Ashland and Mechanicsville receive the county’s highest call volume, simply because they are located in Hanover’s more heavily populated areas.
Using Mechanicsville Volunteer Fire Company as an example, Piland said he runs 2,600 calls a year from that one station.
“Different parts of the county challenge me for different reasons, and I don’t want to say we’re underserved because we have a strong department, but there’s always room for improvement,” Piland said.
Editor’s Note: This has been the first of a two-part series on Hanover Fire-EMS. Next week’s article explores how the department attracts and retains its volunteers to staff rural and suburban stations and why volunteers do what they do.