It’s always a good time to sign up for Crozet’s volunteer fire crew, said Fire Chief Will Schmertzler. “Month after month, year after year, we need to keep recruiting to stay at full strength.” He said everyone, men and women of any age and any set of skills can play a part, although he’d particularly like to have more people in the 30- to 40-year-old age group.
Long-time firefighter Pete Oprandy said several factors have made it difficult to keep volunteers in the pipeline. Crozet’s a wonderful place to train, but trained volunteers often go on to become professional firefighters in other jurisdictions. “We’ve lost eight or ten that way,” he said. The crew is always glad when a young volunteer chooses to make it a profession, but the loss reduces the numbers available to respond to calls at night, or serve as back-up for the three paid firefighters who answer calls from the Crozet station during the day.
Another factor that affects the firefighting pipeline: the pandemic put a delay on recruitment from county high schools, and a recently adjusted age requirement eliminated many younger students.
Although people often start out as volunteers from a sense of duty and service to their community, they’re likely to stay because they find a great deal of personal satisfaction. Oprandy (now retired from active duty) spent many volunteer hours in Crozet on his days off from serving on paid staff in Charlottesville. “It’s a real win-win situation,” he said. “You’re helping people, and that alone is enough to make you feel good.” His two sons, John and Mike, grew up around the firehouse in Crozet, observed how their father felt about his job, and went on to have leadership positions in Albemarle County and Richmond.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for a family team,” Oprandy said, “especially these days when young people are so caught up in technology.” He’s quick to add that firefighting is one occupation that has definitely benefited from technology: “Years ago, all we had was our boots, jackets, and helmets.” Today’s firefighters benefit from innovation that makes them much safer, with air packs, personal alerts and imaging cameras. Oprandy believes that the Crozet crew stands out for its willingness to keep up with new ideas and strategies in firefighting.
The public they serve is safer, too, with stricter building codes and smoke detectors, and the Crozet volunteers are delighted to help people install and maintain smoke detectors. “We’ll even provide them if you can’t,” he said. “It’s that important.” Even with advances in fire prevention and detection, the crew stays busy, responding to a 24-hour cycle of vehicle crashes as well as house and brush fire alarms.
Although firefighting has dramatic moments of search and rescue, it’s not exactly as depicted on television and in movies, Oprandy said. “For instance, you can’t just put your shoulder to a door and have it break open, unless the door is unusually flimsy. It can take special equipment and quite a bit of doing, and it’s often at a time when every second counts.”
Even if you can’t picture yourself breaking open doors, dragging hundreds of pounds of hose, and locating people overcome by smoke, there’s still plenty to do, he said. “There’s a lot more than putting the wet stuff to the red stuff. There are all kinds of roles.” Oprandy, now in his 70s, often served as a driver, and said those skills are needed, too, as are fundraising and administration.
There have been a number of firefighters related by blood over the years. Matt Robb started as a volunteer at the suggestion of a friend who thought he’d be well-suited. The friend was right, and more than 35 years later, Robb still finds doing his part to protect the community meaningful. “I always wanted to contribute, but I’ve also made good, close friends,” he said. “It’s hard to describe, but there’s a real brotherhood that happens when your lives truly depend on each other.” Beside him at the firehouse on Tuesday nights is his son and fellow volunteer Zack, now grown and himself a father.
Matt knew that Zack, like him, would enjoy serving. “For me, it didn’t hurt that there’s adrenaline involved,” he noted. “And it wasn’t hard to rope him in.”
“I grew up here,” Zack said, looking around at the bay of fire trucks. “I always knew I would do this as I got older. Now we need more people to step up to the plate.”