When several vacancies in the Charlottesville Fire Department opened at the same time, Fire Chief Andrew Baxter (who’s been chief for a little more than a year) decided to institute a new hiring process. The in-depth application, which included a personal history questionnaire, was meant to find candidates who were not only qualified to be firefighters (although previous firefighting experience is not a requirement) but who also had leadership experience (everything from Boy Scouts to combat veterans) and who were involved in their communities.
The search began in March, and about 300 people applied for one of eight open positions. The field was eventually whittled to the top 22 “highly qualified” candidates, whom Baxter interviewed in person. The eight new hires then participated in a recruit academy, a five-days-a-week, 10-hours-a-day training academy from August 1 through graduation on October 4.
Training exercises included everything from physical fitness tests and in-class training on the science of fire and how to use equipment to applying lessons they’ve learned in a burn demonstration at the CFD’s training facility on Avon Street.
By holding the academy with all the new hires at once as opposed to training them individually, it not only allowed the fire department to imprint its values as an organization on the recruits, but it allowed the recruits themselves to form a unique bond. Baxter hopes that decades from now (he tells all recruits that he expects them to stay with the “family” for 30 years before retiring) they will still proudly look back on being part of Recruit Academy One.
Baxter says the department will have another hiring round in 2017, but says the single recruit academy model may not be sustainable because in the gaps between hiring, current firefighters often accrue overtime hours. But, he said they would possibly pursue a regional model, by teaming up with Albemarle, Orange and Louisa counties to organize a central training academy.
The graduates of the recruit academy officially went into the field on October 8. Photographer and volunteer firefighter for the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department and a career firefighter for the city of Waynesboro Justin Ide followed them through the recruit academy as well as their first few days at work. We asked the new firefighters about the training process and why they chose this public service-oriented profession.—Jessica Luck
Photos by Justin Ide
The Charlottesville Fire Department has 91 full-time employees, three of whom are civilians. And the firefighters are stationed at three facilities throughout the city: on Ridge Street, Fontaine Avenue, and McIntire Road near the 250 Bypass. Each day there are a minimum of 19 firefighters working, including two firefighters/paramedics stationed with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad. Fire Chief Andrew Baxter says one of the biggest challenges in the firefighting profession is that people have a simplistic view of firefighting, something akin to “Chicago Fire.” But that’s only a small piece of what they do: Last week, for example, they read to first-graders as part of Fire Prevention Week. Other tasks include performing inspections and investigations, and EMS calls make up the majority of the emergency calls they receive.
Recruit Academy 1
Brandon Leonard, 30
Leonard, who has lived in the Charlottesville area for 10 years, says seeing 9/11 happen as a 16-year-old is what sparked his decision to become a firefighter. He served as a firefighter in the Navy on the USS Enterprise, before moving into the firefighting profession full-time. He worked in Campbell County most recently, and says the history of the Charlottesville department is what led him to apply for a position here.
“This department’s a lot more of family than my old department, that stood out in the recruit school,” he says. “They take care of their own—that’s pretty good to see.”
One thing people might not be aware of, he says, is that firefighters work on 24-hours shifts, sleeping at the facility and eating together as a family when not out on runs. He calls the department a “brotherhood.”
“This has just been my calling the entire time. I feel at home doing this kind of work,” he says. “I get satisfaction out of the job, but that’s not what I’m here for. It’s just something I enjoy doing, I enjoy helping people.”
Kenneth Davis, 36
Davis didn’t set out to be a firefighter. Instead, he followed his music passion all over the country, eventually joining Charlottesville rock band Under the Flood, which signed a multi-album deal with Koch Records. Davis still has a foot in the music world—he works as a manager at the Jefferson Theater—but says a December 2015 ridealong with a firefighter friend changed his life. He was soul-searching and looking for the next passion he wanted to pursue and says “when I found this it clicked right away. …When you watch the news you’re always like, ‘I wish there was something I could do to help.’ This is the opportunity to do that.”
For Davis, one of the most exciting aspects of the job is the chance to keep learning. “It’s one thing to learn in the classroom and books, but getting out in the real-world environment is another thing.”
Ben Weidinger, 24
UVA grad Weidinger is no stranger to helping people, especially when it comes to the EMS side of firefighting. He grew up working in his mom’s veterinary clinic in Yorktown, and after graduating with a pre-med degree he volunteered at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital and at a free clinic in his hometown. He chose to join CFD as “a way to increase my knowledge of medicine and be physical; help people, especially while I’m young.”
Weidinger says most people are likely not aware of how much EMS (emergency medical services) work firefighters do, in that they are often the first responders to a scene and start medical treatment before an ambulance arrives.
“I would say that coming from someone who had very little experience of public service in any regard about a year and a half ago, there’s so much more to it than you would believe,” he says. “You see a firefighter and think, ‘Oh, they’re going to put out a fire.’ That’s the only thing you see, and with public education and emergency medical services they respond to pretty much everything.”
Michael Barber, 30
Every day in high school on his walk home from rugby practice, Barber would pass the local volunteer firehouse. He often wondered what it would be like to join them, and he got his chance at Lynchburg College, after discovering the school did not have a rugby club. When a student rep for the college rescue squad gave her pitch to the freshman class, Barber decided to give it a shot. One week later he had an interview, and the week after that he was voted onto the squad. The following semester he became the organization’s secretary. Still, he always thought of firefighting as a volunteer gig (after college he volunteered in Lynchburg and in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) until 2012, when he received a call from his old fire chief in Virginia. Barber was looking for a change and decided to make firefighting a full-time career, joining the Wintergreen Fire Rescue Squad.
Barber is looking forward to working with a larger department (Charlottesville’s department is three times the size of Wintergreen) that receives a variety of calls each day. Being in a less rural area allows firefighters to be on an emergency scene more quickly, and allows them to enter a structure and put out a fire quickly before it does more damage.
“I’m most excited about being a part of this new family,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what department you ever run on, once you’re part of it, you’re a part of the family.”
Kelly Jackson, 25
New recruit Jackson never had aspirations to become a firefighter. But the former personal trainer was working in the Washington, D.C., area, and a couple of her firefighter friends encouraged her to switch careers. She shrugged it off until applying on a whim one day—she sent applications to several departments, including ones closer to her hometown of Lynchburg, as well as one in Maryland near her brother.
Because she’s new to the field, she said she had zero expectations going into the recruit academy.
“It was pretty difficult because it was so much information in a short amount of time,” she says. “It took a lot of discipline and studying on our own to really soak in everything that was thrown at us.” She said the best part of the academy was getting out of the classroom and going on ridealongs; seeing what a regular day was like. What she looks forward to most is that each day on the job is different.
“I couldn’t have an office job or something that you just do the same stuff over and over and over again,” she says. “Here you never know, you could have nothing or you could never sit down all day. It’s going to be a challenge, and I like that part.”
Jason Frazier, 31
Because of his military background (he joined the active duty Marine Corps after high school and is now in the reserves) Frazier says it’s the structure of the fire department that appeals to him most. He’s spent five years attempting to join the Charlottesville department, and has gained certifications along the way.
“With a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck I landed this position,” says the Crozet native.
Frazier joined the recruit class a little later than everyone else because he just came off a nine-month deployment in Qatar.
He knew what to expect in terms of firefighting duties because he’s volunteered for three years at the Crozet department, but he says the biggest takeaway in his time at CFD is how helpful everyone has been in answering questions and showing him the way they do things.
“For me it’s more that I like the brotherhood; the atmosphere of it is not just a job—it’s something you enjoy going to every day,” he says. “It’s a second family almost.”
Ryan Snoddy, 26
Firefighting is a true family affair for Snoddy. His dad, Vernon, retired after 30 years with the Charlottesville Fire Department, and Snoddy says he aspires to live up to his dad’s reputation.
“Growing up I learned from him that patience is the key to everything,” he says. “He did everything to the best of his ability, and his actions speak louder than words.”
Snoddy’s background as a car mechanic translates well into his new profession, because of the tactile, hands-on focus of both, he says. He made the leap into firefighting to help others and because of its team mentality, and he is looking forward to continuing to prove himself in this new job and earn the respect of his fellow firefighters.
“Being a firefighter you have to be a jack of all trades,” he says. “I’m looking forward to getting to learn every day.”