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(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on Hanover Fire-EMS. The first story focused on how the volunteer departments evolved into a hybrid volunteer/career staff and how Fire-EMS protects the diverse rural and suburban communities of Hanover County.)
It didn’t take long for Matt Walder to get hooked.
The three-year volunteer with Farrington Volunteer Fire Company began volunteering at the urging of a friend at Station 11, who invited him to the station to meet the crew and participate in a “ride-along.” Walder knew that he had found something special.
“I was overwhelmed. It’s a great group of people and they’re all there to just help someone. And I thought to myself, ‘If they can do this every week, so can I,’” Walder said.
Walder’s story is not uncommon. While the department has a resident volunteer recruitment and retention officer in Cris Leonard, Hanover Fire-EMS Chief Jethro Piland said the biggest way the system attracts new volunteers is by word of mouth and from witnessing the work departments do in the community.
Piland encourages those who may be interested in volunteering to visit with their local fire company.
“These guys are where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “They are the recruiters moreso than I am.”
Steve Taylor, district chief at Henry Volunteer Fire Company, said prospective volunteers routinely visit his department to participate in “ride-alongs,” where civilians are allowed to accompany crews on a real call.
“Once they get on the truck and get that first call – even though they can’t do anything, they just have to stand with the driver – they see what we do,” Taylor said. “That gets them in right there.”
Education outreach is also a big recruitment tool. Representatives from Hanover Fire-EMS target travel to local high schools and also teach college-credit firefighter and EMT courses at Hanover High School in conjunction with J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.
“We try to recruit young, college-bound kids and we can teach them the skillset, provide them with credits and request and expect them to continue to volunteer in our system,” Piland said.
A key to keeping volunteers in the system is providing them with superior training and equipment, which Piland called “second to none.”
Hanover’s Volunteer Fire Training Academy consists of 320 hours of training – two nights a week and two or three weekends a month – over a six-month period. Once they graduate, active volunteers are expected to log 12 hours a month or 36 hours over a three-month period. Individual departments may set more stringent requirements.
With training and certification behind them, one question emerges: Why continue to volunteer when there are opportunities for fulltime employment in the field elsewhere?
While he said the problem is not widespread, Piland acknowledged that he does lose some volunteers to paid jobs in other jurisdictions.
“That’s kind of a double-edged sword – you do see that – but that’s really not any different than having a career guy stay for a couple years and take a promotion somewhere else,” Piland said. “It happens – I would definitely acknowledge it happens – but I have just as many volunteers that go get a paid job and continue to volunteer with us.”
Piland added that he has seen volunteerism change and evolve since he first began as a volunteer 20 years ago, attributing the phenomenon to several factors.
“The economy is different, I think the expectations are different, I think the training standards are way more difficult than it used to be,” Piland said. “You have to have a greater amount of commitment.”
Today’s volunteers tend to be younger and more aggressive, Piland said, adding, “There is a sense that they want a job, but that’s not to say that they won’t continue to volunteer with us.”
Taylor said his assistant chief and second assistant chief both have career jobs in other departments.
“They can go elsewhere, get the proper training, and come back to us,” he said.
However, it has proven more difficult to recruit and retain volunteers to man Hanover’s more rural stations. Piland said that emergency responders like to stay busy, and are therefore more attracted to serving in Hanover’s heavily populated areas, resulting in a higher concentration of firefighters and EMTs where the county’s call volume warrants it.
“It is easier for me to staff stations that have a pretty significant call volume,” he said.
While it is hard to find volunteers at some of the county’s more rural stations, Piland said that those who do volunteer tend to be extremely dedicated, and often, community service follows bloodlines.
“I’ve got one guy in Beaverdam, he’s been a volunteer for 60 years, built the fire station. He no longer rides the fire truck but his sons and grandsons all do,” Piland said.
Taylor joined Henry Volunteer Fire Company in 1991 when he was 16, inspired by his grandfather who was a career firefighter in the City of Richmond.
A strong sense of community service has helped keep Taylor going over the years, along with the sense that he’s making a difference. Camaraderie within the department has also helped keep Taylor vested over his 22 years.
“The fire department is a very tight group of people. You have to trust the people you’re fighting the fire with,” Taylor said. “My best friends are in my station.”
During the day, Taylor works as a project manager for a construction firm. He said balancing his duties with the department with his work and home life is always a struggle.
“Every week. It’s always difficult,” Taylor said. “You have to balance everything out – the family, the kids.”
It’s hard for some. Taylor said he has noticed a trend among volunteers. Most join young and are deeply committed until they marry and start families. Then, there is usually a five-year lull before they return to being active again in the department.
“I’ve been here for 22 years, so I’ve seen them come and go,” Taylor said. “With a lot of the guys, it’s the same cycle. The people who are really committed are the ones that hang in there.”
In early 2000, Taylor was dispatched to the scene of a vehicle accident. In the middle of the night, a woman had fallen asleep behind the wheel and crashed into the basement of a house. The building was close to collapsing when Taylor and two other firefighters entered the structure and stabilized it, giving them enough time to rescue the badly injured victim. In retrospect, Taylor calls this moment the most rewarding of his 22 years of service.
“It felt really good, because it was a bad predicament to put ourselves in to, the building could’ve collapsed at any time…but we had to get her out,” Taylor recalled.
Piland added that there is a sense of duty and honor that goes along with risking one’s life to save another’s. There’s also a sense of fear and adrenaline.
“I think if that building would have collapsed around her, she truly would have perished, but because [Taylor] and his partner were willing to lay it on the line, she’s alive today,” Piland said.
It’s a scenario that plays out time after time for first responders. While Taylor said he doesn’t always know whether a victim will pull through or not, he at least knows he helped give them the opportunity.
“When you take them to the hospital, they have a pulse. It’s a good thing. We don’t hear what happens after that and most of the time I don’t want to hear what happens after that,” Taylor said. “When we get them there, they have a pulse. They at least have a fighting chance.”
There are also the other times, when the victims are beyond saving. Taylor said he used to call his wife after a bad call but doesn’t anymore. Now, he makes sure other members of his department are OK. Hanover Fire-EMS also utilizes crisis intervention teams and has departmental chaplains at its disposal.
“It can stick with you. When I was younger, it used to stick with me for a while,” Taylor said.
Walder has already experienced what it feels like to save a life. Walder responded to a call of an unconscious woman and began administering CPR, his first time using the resuscitation technique in the field.
“The whole time, I just kept thinking ‘This is crazy; this lady’s unconscious, she’s dead and I’m just pounding on her chest,’” Walder said. “We got her pulse back, and it was just a really rewarding experience. You go home and think about that and that’s what makes you want to come back the next day and work even harder.”
During the day, Walder works for the family business, Walder Foundation Products LLC. Walder’s roots are in Hanover County and he plans to stay here for the rest of his life, another motivator for the young firefighter.
The biggest challenge for the three-year volunteer has been learning all of the nuances of the field. Though located in a relatively rural area, Station 11 routinely responds to a variety of calls in Ashland as well as outlying areas.
Walder currently serves as a “jumpseat” firefighter, a position Piland refers to as the most hands-on during a call. Walder plans to pursue his EMT certification, a move that will make him more versatile during call response and open doors for him within the department – ambulance calls make up approximately 80 percent of the county’s overall call volume.
Though motivated, the young volunteer said pay doesn’t really factor into what he does.
“A lot of volunteers start out in Hanover County because of the great fire training program and Fire-EMS classes offered and they hope one day they will be able to make their volunteer service into a career in the county they started in,” Walder said. “I feel the incentives offered in Hanover County are great but they have nothing to do with why a person volunteers. You volunteer to help someone in need; you’re there on the worst day of their life hoping you can make it better.”