As a photojournalist for the last 25 years, working at both small and large newspapers in West Virginia and Boston, I was constantly on the outside of the fire line, shooting photos and telling the stories of those affected by fires, and the firefighters themselves. Firefighters were easy to talk to and hang around with, and like most anyone, if you showed interest in them, and brought them a few photos from the last job, or fire you were at, they welcomed you with open, and sometimes wet, sooty arms.
As a boy growing up in small town Connecticut, a number of my neighbors were volunteer firefighters. With each blast of the huge Cold War-era siren affixed to the roof of the fire station, I would watch riveted as they jumped into their cars and raced up the street, tires screeching and lights flashing, answering a call for help from someone in our community. I admired them from afar.
I hadn’t considered becoming a volunteer firefighter myself until my wife and I moved to the Charlottesville area just over two years ago , and I transitioned from a full-time job as a photographer to working as a freelancer. With the increased time and flexibility in my schedule, the siren song of the fire service grew louder, and last year, I crossed that fire line to become an insider when I joined the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department and Ivy Fire Rescue, both a part of Albemarle County Fire Rescue (ACFR).
Becoming a volunteer in Albemarle County is as simple as walking into a firehouse or signing up online, but it’s also a significant commitment that requires certification through the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. The grueling six-month Firefighter I course comes with an 1,100-page manual and what seems like countless hours of course and practical training at the ACFR Fire Training Center, an apocolyptic concrete structure on Avon Street behind the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Training as a red helmet, or new recruit, begins with basic safety. If you’re not safe, you’re of no use to anyone else at an emergency scene, so knowing how to properly protect yourself with bunker gear and use of an SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) is hammered into new recruits on a regular basis. Bunker drills, putting on your gear correctly, as fast as you can until it becomes second nature, takes up a lot of early class time.
Besides the physical challenges of training, building a team mentality among recruits is a critical aspect of the course. We’re taught early on that firefighters should never be alone. Freelancing, as it’s known, is considered taboo and if encountered by an instructor, is corrected with more bunker drills for everyone and hopefully a lesson learned. Early understanding of the brotherhood, lauded most recently when two firefighters died in the line of duty in Boston, is instilled throughout the class.
The best part of becoming an insider in the fire service has been my re-introduction to, and, hopefully, my eventual inclusion in the brotherhood of people—men and women—who pour everything they have into this profession. Volunteering has brought me a sense of pride and accomplishment, and when I arrive on scene and am able to help someone else in need, I’m grateful for the privilege.