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Firefighter’s life: toils, dangers and rewards
SoVaNow.com / November 14, 2012“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, author and a friend of firefighters
Someone once said, “All men are created equal, then a few become firefighters.” What the speaker didn’t say was that three-fourths of firefighters across the country are volunteers. In Clarksville and Boydton, 100 percent of the men and women who protect our lives and communities are volunteers.
On a recent Thursday evening Richard Elliott, president of the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department [CVFD], and a group of 30 men and women were busy stuffing envelopes for an upcoming fundraising drive. The banter between them was light and familiar. It seemed the ideal time to ask the question: why did you become a volunteer firefighter?
Eliott’s first response — “so I could play with the siren” — belies the seriousness that he puts into his service with the department. Elliott has been a member of the CVFD for 32 years. His training includes basic firefighting, vehicle extrication, confined spaces firefighting and extraction, search and rescue, hazardous materials handling, farm machinery extrication, pump operation and propane gas firefighting.
As President of the CVFD, he also oversees the administrative duties for the department, including raising the majority of the nearly $400,000 it takes each year to operate the town fire station.
He recalled his proudest moment as the day his youngest son, Clarksville Police Officer Andy Elliott, joined the CVFD.
He calls the men and women who serve Clarksville his family. You can see the bonds these men and women share, as they tease and cajole each other during the course of giving interviews and devoting another evening to fundraising. Yet, once the siren sounds and firefighters pull on their suits, Elliott said, the joking stops, because they all have a job to do.
After 32 years, Elliott’s heart still races when the alarm sounds calling him to a fire, crash or rescue. “You never get over that first feeling” of fear or anxiety, said Elliott, adding that any “fireman who says he is never afraid is not a real fireman.”
Much of the anxiety these men and women feel, explained Boydton Fire Chief Johnny Kirkland, arises because 75 percent of the time they will know the person they’re called out to help, or their family. “You have to remember, most of us were raised up here.”
Kirkland took a break from his cooking duties — he and several members from the Boydton Fire Department were selling Brunswick stew at the recent Boydton Day celebration — to share his experiences as a volunteer firefighter. Boydton, like Clarksville, raises most of its operating budget from individuals and businesses.
A 22-year veteran of the fire department, Kirkland echoed Elliott’s view that “you never get used to being called, but over time you learn to work with the feelings.”
He also said there are some moments that one never forgets, such as the first few times he was called to a car accident. Another call was initially reported as a brush fire but was, in fact, a homicide. A man had bludgeoned his wife to death and then set the house on fire to cover up his crime.
As Boydton’s fire chief, Kirkland is often first to arrive on the scene. It is his job to assess the situation and then direct the volunteers as they arrive.
There are, however, some light-hearted moments that come from serving, and a few moments that tug at the heart.
One incident Elliott recalls quite vividly: He and the CVFD were desperately fighting to save a burning house near Highway 58. Something caused him to look down, and when he did, all he could see were snakes slithering toward him — fleeing the torched structure.
In telling the story, Elliott would not say whether he is afraid of snakes, but the hoots and hollers coming from the men who listened to him recount the incident gave him away his secret — as did his shiver as he described the scaly creatures.
One of Kirkland’s favorite moments is more heart wrenching: “Last hunting season, a hunter’s prize hound fell into an abandoned well chasing a rabbit. We got him [the hound] out by lowering our oldest and smallest guy down into that well. It was a happy ending.”
Both Elliott and Kirkland say they long ago gave up any romantic notion attached to firefighting. They aver when asked if they see themselves as symbols of courage and heroism. So what do these men see as “the greatest reward” for their service? A simple hug, or a word of thanks.
Towns across Mecklenburg County rely on these volunteers to respond when the call comes in. Despite the sacrifices they make –—foregoing family celebrations or personal time — all too often, these men and women are taken for granted. No one thinks twice about them.
In Boydton and Clarksville, just about anyone can join the fire departments. The youngest members of CVFD are 17 and still in high school. There are even a few career firefighters who volunteer on their days off.
Among them are CVFD Assistant Chief Brian Hogan, a full-time firefighter in South Boston, Wally Englehart, retired fire chief from Eatontown, New Jersey, and several Bluestone High School students.
Again, why do they become volunteer firefighters? Perhaps the best answer came from CVFD member Daniel Pittard, who said, “It is a chance to put people’s needs above your wants, and that’s what firefighters do every day.”
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