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To be a firefighter

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL - The job is dangerous, the hours are crazy, and the pay is … nothing.
Interested?
For many firefighters in Warren County, the answer is yes.
Thomas Harrison was just 16 when he decided to become a firefighter and EMT. He came from a family of rescue workers – his father and grandparents had been active with the county's Fire and Rescue services for years, but they had all retired from service by the time Harrison chose to do it.
Now 18, the 2013 Skyline High School graduate is a part-time employee of Warren County Fire and Rescue who also volunteers as a firefighter/EMT. In the fall, he'll start taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College to become a paramedic.
Since the beginning, Harrison has consistently been one of the youngest firefighter/EMTs among the county's ranks of volunteer firefighters.
But for Harrison, starting young was the way to go because he was able to complete the lengthy training requirements before getting a full-time job and starting a family.
“It's pretty mentally demanding,” Harrison said of balancing school with firefighter training. “Sometimes I'd have an hour to do homework. I don't think I'd be able to do the time commitment if I had been working full-time and had a family.”
Still, Harrison said, plenty of people do. Most of the firefighters he works with are in their late 20s and older.
And not everyone chooses to become certified as an EMT as well as a firefighter. The two certifications require separate training through evening and weekend classes. It took Harrison about a year to complete the training to be a firefighter and EMT.
“The time commitment is very high,” Harrison said.

Filling the ranks

The county has 22 paid staff members trained as firefighter/EMTs and many more volunteers. Warren County Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Mabie said he doesn't have an official count on the number of volunteer firefighters in the county because each company keeps track of their own membership, but there are many more volunteers than career firefighters.
The difference is that volunteers put in as much time as they can, whereas paid staff work when they are scheduled.
As a student, Harrison volunteered as much as he could without getting behind on his schoolwork. It was usually between 10 and 20 hours a week.
“It really was just how much I could put in,” Harrison said. “Any extra time I had I tried to give to the Fire Department.”
Paid staff members are required to have at least 150 hours of EMT training as well as 120 to 180 hours of firefighter training, while volunteers can choose to be an EMT, a firefighter or both.
“We call it the Firefighting Academy,” Mabie said.
Training courses for firefighters are held at the Public Safety Building. If 15 people sign up, the state sends an instructor and covers the cost. But often, the classes are smaller than that and the county must foot the bill.
“If we fund it ourselves locally we can do it with five (students),” Mabie said. “It can get pretty expensive. It's not a per-student cost. Most instructors are making roughly $25 an hour.” The classes can run eight to 10 hours.
Before they can respond to an actual fire emergency, firefighters train in search and rescue and ladder operations at facilities in Winchester or Frederick County where real fires are created under controlled conditions.
Finally, firefighters take a written test and skills evaluation.

It's (often) a family affair

Most of the people who decide to become volunteer firefighters have friends or family who have already done it, giving them a sense of the kind of time commitment involved.
“You'd be surprised the girlfriends and the boyfriends that get involved,” Mabie said.
But some people interested in volunteering don't realize how much time firefighters spend not just in training and responding to calls, but running fundraisers such as bingo night at the fire hall.
“We put them through an orientation so they know pretty much the short version of what they're getting into,” Mabie said. “A lot of people don't know they do bingo.”
It isn't easy to recruit enough volunteer firefighters to fill the ranks at the county's 10 companies. Volunteers are harder and harder to come by because of the demands on people's time as well as increasingly rigorous requirements.
“When you're talking about somebody volunteering 500 hours to be a firefighter/EMT, it's really hard,” Mabie said. “It takes a special kind of person to put that kind of time into it.”
Harrison said several people who started Firefighter Academy with him didn't complete the training.
“There's a lot of people who, for whatever reason, whether it's work or family or whatever, they just realize it's not really what they want to do and they quit. It's just a very big commitment, but it's one that's worthwhile.”

Citizens Fire Academy

Beginning Aug. 13, Warren County Fire and Rescue will host a seven-week Citizens Fire Academy with classes meeting from 6-9 p.m. every Tuesday at the Public Safety Building. The free program is geared toward adults who live in Front Royal and Warren County and want to know more about Fire and Rescue operations.
The Citizens Fire Academy is not a training program for firefighters. Warren County Fire Chief Richard Mabie said the goal of the program is to educate citizens, particularly government employees and elected officials who deal with local budgets, about the inner workings of the fire department.
“We're trying to educate those types of people about just what the Fire Department does,” Mabie said.
Fifty invitations to attend the academy were sent and Mabie said if 25 attend it will be a success.
Participants must be at least 18, live or work in Front Royal or Warren County, pass a background check and be able to attend 15 hours of instruction.
For more information, contact Warren County Fire and Rescue at (540) 636-3830 or visit www.warrencountyva.net to download the application.

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