With approximately 50 members, three fire stations and more than a dozen vehicles, the Hillsville Volunteer Fire Department remains a strong organization dedicated to serving its community as it nears its 90th anniversary.
Founded in 1931, HVFD typically runs anywhere from 350 to 400 calls per year. Donnie Spangler is the chief of the department, Andy Utt has taken over the role of assistant fire chief in the past year, and Paul Chappell serves as First Captain. Finding and recruiting new volunteers has been a crisis nationwide for volunteer fire departments and rescue squads, something that has affected Hillsville Fire and other local first-responder agencies. Regardless, the mission of the Hillsville Fire Department remains the same.
“Even though we are volunteers, we provide the same professional service as paid staff,” Utt said.
In his 18th year with Hillsville Fire, Utt served as a lieutenant in the department for eight years before being promoted to assistant fire chief. Also one of HVFD’s three adjunct instructors with the Department of Fire Programs (along with Mike Musser and Brian Edmonds), Utt knows first-hand why it is so hard for any fire department to attract and keep volunteers.
“Retention is the hard part. People want to help and they want to be able to volunteer their time and provide a service that is great for their community, but the time that it requires is what a lot of people don’t understand,” Utt said. “Just the basic Firefighter 1 class is 180 hours. Everybody has jobs, so this is done in four-hour increments normally one night a week and then you are tied up 16 hours on a Saturday and Sunday trying to knock out 180 hours. That is just the beginning of Firefighter 1.”
Utt said Carroll County requires any fire officer to have at least Firefighter 1 training. To be a chief in Carroll, a volunteer must be certified in Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2. With the 180-hour Firefighter 1 course, participants must also complete Hazmat Operations, an additional 32-hour course. To advance beyond that, Firefighter 2 is an additional 48-hour course. In order to drive any apparatus, ambulance or fire truck in Carroll County also requires completion of the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC), which is an additional 16 hours.
“To drive a fire engine as an operator, you have to have your EVOC certification and a Basic Pump class and that is a 16-hour course. Those are your basic requirements to be able to operate a fire truck,” Utt said. “And Hillsville Fire doesn’t require it, but we would like for all our operators to have a driver-operator course, which goes in to more of the instruction of the operation, maintenance and design of Fire Pumping Apparatus and mathematics of friction loss. There is an additional 48-hour course for that. And the vehicle extrication course is another 16 hours. And that is just the beginning of a multitude of classes that is offered. Of our members, 44 have Firefighter 1; 36 have been through vehicle extrication; 37 have had the EVOC course and 44 have done hazmat, so we are talking thousands of hours of training combined with the department.”
For high school students interested in becoming a firefighter, HVFD offers a Junior Cadet program. With so many extracurricular activities for students now, cadets are also becoming increasingly difficult to get involved with the department.
“Getting them here is the easy part. Retaining them is the hard part because of the training that is required,” Utt said. “So again it falls back on that true dedication of time that you are not getting back, you are not being reimbursed for other than being trained to serve as a volunteer fireman. But we still do have a cadet program and there is usually an ebb and flow. We will have a large influx of five or six and then we might only have one.”
With any volunteer organization, there are a lot of people that want to help and serve their community but struggle finding the time. For instance, Hillsville Fire Department requires its members to answer at least 25 percent of all fire calls, attend 50 percent of all business meetings (held every third Monday), attend 50 percent of trainings and 50 percent of work details.
“We require those because that is in essence what makes this department work. The fire calls you are going to run, that is the fun part. The part that is not is the training that is required, the constant everyday training to hone your craft so you know what to do in an emergency situation, the work details that help keep these trucks operating and help keep the station running because this is the community’s building,” Utt said.
In total, Hillsville Volunteer Fire Department has four engines, three tankers, three brush trucks, one ladder truck, one utility vehicle, and one response vehicle. The department has three stations – Station One at 115 Fulcher Street, Station Two (Laurel Sub-Station) at 319 Hangar Road, and Station Three (Dugspur Sub-Station) at 1267 Double Cabin Road.
Even though Hillsville Fire is a volunteer department, the associated costs are not any less. Utt noted turnout gear for one firefighter is $2,500. Once helmet, boots, gloves and hoods are figured in, you are looking at $3,200 to equip one person. Additionally, the Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for each fireman costs approximately $8,000.
“That is why fundraisers are so important to us,” Utt said. “We try to be as transparent as possible so everybody knows our budget because it is a tight budget. Our biggest fundraiser is the annual mail out that we do. We mail that out once a year and we receive incredible support from the community on that. We also receive funds from the town and the county each year. Luckily, we have been able to balance our appropriations from the county and the town with the mail-out and we are able to operate fiscal year to fiscal year.”
Anyone interesting in joining the Hillsville Volunteer Fire Department has several options. Utt said those interested could stop by Station 1 on Fulcher Street in the evenings. Someone is usually there he said, but if not, call (276) 728-7322. If you know a fireman, you can always talk to them, or message HVFD on its Facebook page.
“That would be the best way, but all of those would be fine. We always have applications printed out. A lot of people have the question and the concern, ‘I am not sure if I will have enough time,’” Utt said. “We want you to join. We want you to be here and be part of this great organization. Come here and you are on a six-month probation period anyway as a beginning member. During those six months hopefully you are going to find that you do have the time to do it and you are going to be able to take the classes. If not, we still thank you for coming.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN