By Matt de Simone
Botetourt Fire & Emergency Medical Services (EMS) is currently looking for volunteers. “Strength in numbers” is a term often used when speaking of positive productivity and effectiveness in any organization/business/team. Botetourt’s six emergency departments are a great example.
Over the last decade, the nation has faced a decline in volunteerism for fire and emergency services. Volunteers make up most of the personnel for fire services, while emergency medical services have increased the number of career personnel.
This week, the series focuses on the Eagle Rock Volunteer Fire and Rescue (ERVFD).
Northern Botetourt has a tight-knit group of volunteers representing the Botetourt area and beyond. Some crew members have career positions with emergency rescue/firefighting services in the Roanoke and Amherst regions. Still, they find the time to help out in northern Botetourt when needed.
Time seems to be an essential aspect when joining a volunteer service like Fire & EMS. Eagle Rock’s division agrees.
In many instances, people hesitate dedicating time for volunteering when they’re fresh out of college or starting a family. Those “lost years” (in terms of volunteering) are where some folks close their minds to certain aspects of serving a community, such as becoming a volunteer rescue worker.
For a community like Eagle Rock, the “strength in numbers” is another crucial facet to any fire department or EMS service. The ERVFD has a committed staff that understands finding new volunteers in a sparsely populated area isn’t easy, but their recruits are likely in it for the long haul once recruited.
“Right now, it’s kind of hard (to recruit),” ERVFD Chief Darryl Johns stated in a recent interview. “Most of the volunteers we have were high school students that came up that are also friends of other friends like that. Our population’s an older generation. It’s a little difficult, but we’re holding our own.”
Currently, the ERVFD needs more ambulance drivers. Both fire and EMS operate out of their department. Nearly all members of the ERVFD are certified emergency medical technicians (EMT) or firefighters (including four career staff members). In last year, ERVFD gained five new EMTs. They’re thankful for their staff and the flexibility of their crew members, but they still need drivers to wheel the ambulance.
The Emergency Vehicle Operators Course (EVOC) is a 16-hour program that a first responder can complete to become a certified driver over a weekend. ERVFD noted that the course is an excellent way for younger crew members to get certified and out in the field. The course emphasizes safe driving skills. Additionally, the class gives the emergency driver all the vehicle codes of Virginia.
“Regardless of whether you’re in Troutville, or Roanoke City, or Eagle Rock, it’s going to take the same number of people on the calls,” Eagle Rock volunteer Ben Campbell added. “You might not have the same frequency of the calls, but having the same number of skilled and trained people on those calls is the same wherever you go. We’ve had good luck getting (new crew members) through classes and are super-supportive of that. We have great retention.”
Johns mentioned that the ERVFD is a “family affair.” He’s been on the crew for 44 years. Other family members also spent many years serving the community, including Charlie Johns, Darryl’s son, the most recent member of his family who joined the department.
“There are many benefits to serving as a volunteer in your community,” Botetourt County Fire & EMS Deputy Chief Jason Ferguson stated in a recent interview. “Being that I was raised in a household with a volunteer firefighter (Ferguson’s father), I know firsthand many of the benefits.
“First and foremost, it’s the sense of being able to help your neighbors in a different and special way. Knowing the people you are responding to and caring for can allow for more personal interaction. The sense of fulfillment in finding out the outcomes of people you’ve cared for when that happens can be an amazing feeling.
“(When joining a fire or EMS department) you truly do get welcomed into a second family. The dynamics of these organizations are such that people live, eat, laugh, and cry together. If you’re in any way an active participant in the service, you’ll find out that a fire station is a home away from home. We rally around our fellow firefighters like no other profession; when one person hurts, we all hurt.”
Over the past year and a half, emergency rescue workers haven’t had an opportunity to reach out to the community since the COVID-19 pandemic. With recruitment scarce at the moment, ERVFD volunteers hope to engage with the younger generations in the community once again.
For ERVFD Lt. Wyatt Crawford, recruiting new volunteers out of high school is vital to their precinct.
“In high school, you’re looking for somewhere to belong,” Crawford said. “(Volunteering) gives you somewhere to belong, gives you a purpose, and keeps you ‘out of trouble.’ That’s where a lot of us started.”
One example of finding somewhere to belong is Colin Lasek, who developed a career in fire and rescue work from his time volunteering in Eagle Rock beginning in 2014 when Lasek was 16. His friends were volunteers in Eagle Rock. Lasek soon started hanging out with his friends at the firehouse, which soon led to him jumping on board. He now works as a career fire and rescue worker in Roanoke City.
Deputy Chief of Special Operations Bobby Simmons added, “If you look at the dynamics, a lot of (recruitment) goes back to family. If it’s not family, it’s friends.”
Simmons’s family on Botetourt County Fire and Rescue staff falls in the same category as Johns’ family–multi-generational. Crawford represents the first member of his family to serve the Eagle Rock community. Most of ERVFD’s team members found their way through family or friends—examples of what makes up most of a volunteer division’s force.
Volunteering isn’t just hopping on a truck to fight fires or accessing conditions of patients.
“Not every role is an interior firefighter,” Campbell mentioned. “We have hundreds of jobs from operators, wildland fire (medics), or administrative staff. Even on the fire ground, only a fraction are (fighting the fires).”
The ERVFD has members of its staff that can do many jobs for the department. The misconception when volunteering is that some people assume one person has to be able to do “everything.”
“That’s not the case,” Simmons said. “Not everyone has to (know how to) be an interior firefighter. There are lots of other duties and lots of important duties.”
The ERVFD is seeing a spike in calls heading into the holiday season. Their staff and the others representing Botetourt County are looking to add to their volunteer families.
“The biggest thing is (working together) with the community and the county,” Johns added. “The big scheme of things is taking care of our family and your family.”
The ERVFD is a prideful crew who are thankful for Botetourt County’s support for their departments and the departments in the surrounding communities.
For anyone inquiring about volunteering with the Eagle Rock division or any division in Botetourt County, visit botetourtfireems.org for more information.
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