By Brian Cohen
Despite tremendous population growth around Crozet, the much-loved, century-old, all-volunteer Crozet Volunteer Fire Department, which now answers 750 calls a year, faces a looming personnel crisis.
Two years: that’s when recruitment manager Elise Lindquist estimates the town’s fire department will suffer a net reduction in staff due to attrition, mainly due the the retirement of senior members. She’s looking especially for men and women in their 20s and 30s to step in, and it wouldn’t have to be for long.
“If people give five strong years, that’s good,” said Lindquist, a five-year member herself. She understands the burdens of families and jobs facing potential volunteers. “Moving into a new community can be overwhelming. They may not immediately have the responsibilities that older firefighters do.”
For decades, Crozet was the archetypical small town, where everyone knew and looked out for each other. Crozetians knew each other from working together in the orchards and Morton Frozen Foods, and shopping at the IGA. Many say there was a greater sense of community back then. Most of the orchards and Morton are long gone. Since Crozet was designated as a high-density growth area in Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan, its population has multiplied from 2,500 to more than 8,500.
“Years ago, most of the guys were good old boys, rednecks,” said Butch Snead, a 48-year CVFD veteran. “They worked together and fished together and hunted together. It’s a different atmosphere today.”
Attitudes toward firefighting and misconceptions about department roles have dampened volunteerism. The shift to a predominantly white-collar work force (a county and national trend, as well) has given the department a blue-collar stigma, according to Albemarle County Division Chief for Volunteer Services Tom LaBelle. That may explain why many parents of volunteering high schoolers are steering their kids away from the fire station.
And not everyone wants to actually fight fires. “Don’t want to go into a burning building? That’s fine,” said LaBelle. “The vast majority of work is preparing before the fire and cleanup after. We need someone to pick up the hoses when we’re done.” LaBelle said volunteers with all kinds of skills are needed, such as accountants, executives, cooks, plumbers, marketers, contractors, and other people with office and trade skills.
Volunteers also face increased federal, state, and county certification regulations. LaBelle said there was a time when two weekends of training would have been sufficient for firefighting basics. Now it takes 200 hours, although much of it could be completed online.
So why would millennials want to join the fire department?
“Two things,” said LaBelle. “They get to put their passion to work here, and it changes. I mean, when the cops need help, they call us. There’s instantaneous gratification. When you get bored, we ask, ‘What do you want to do? Rock on!’ How many bosses are going to ask that?”
The recognition is pretty sweet, too. Lindquist, 29 and a personal banker, said, “When was the last time you went to a banker parade?”
Pointing to Lindquist, LaBelle said, “She’s the department secretary and a firefighter. She is a corporate-level officer in a multi-million dollar company—in five years. You’re not going to see that in other organizations.”
Finally, there’s the satisfaction of being plugged into a community. LaBelle, a third-generation firefighter, said that when he helps other people, he thinks of them as family. Lindquist agreed that she feels part of a vast brotherhood/sisterhood.
How would someone know if they were meant for this? LaBelle suggested signing up for a ride-along, which requires no training. “You’ll know,” he said. “The rush is like no other.”
If you are at least 16 years old and want more information about joining the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department, visit crozetfire.org/join-us, or call 434-823-4759.