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The members of the Galax Volunteer Fire Department take their motto to heart.
“Pride in Our Past, Dedicated to the Future” is emblazoned on signs and trucks, but it’s more than words.
As for the pride in the past, firefighters speak reverently of those who came before, building the organization from a bucket brigade to a fire company in 1912, after much of the city’s wood buildings were destroyed by fire.
Others built onto that foundation, turning that volunteer group into a professional, highly trained, modern and well-equipped firefighting force.
And when it comes to dedication to the future, the department works hard to keep its trucks, tools and methods modern; and ensures a steady flow of new recruits by training high school students in its Explorer cadet program.
This year, the GVFD celebrates a century of service.
Click HERE to see the 16-page Galax Volunteer Fire Department special section, featuring a history of the department.
ALSO: Watch a photo slideshow at the end of this story, with more than 200 photos of the department from between 1912 and 2012.
“It means a lot to the department to reach a century with all volunteers,” said firefighter Eric Hale, who has been with the department 14 years. “Our mission is to stay volunteer for the next 100 years.”
Hale says the department has no plans to ever transition to a paid service. Even though members risk their lives for no pay, there is never a shortage of manpower when the siren sounds.
“It means leaving your job and your family. There are health risks, health problems. You’re not getting paid,” Hale said. “And we still send full trucks out to calls... We have better staffing with volunteers than many other paid departments.”
He estimates that the department has saved the City of Galax millions of dollars over the past century by remaining volunteer, and millions more by paying for its own equipment.
The department has received help from the city on buying some vehicles and equipment, but the majority is paid for through donations raised by the members, ladies auxiliary and supporters.
They paid for a recent major renovation of the firehouse with their own funds.
Hale starts adding up some expenses the city would have to cover if it operated the fire department.
One Flir thermal imaging camera to find hot spots inside walls and people inside smoke-filled buildings, costs about $10,000.
The department has six of them.
Replacing one set of breathing gear, a firefighters lifeline, costs $100,000.
Each set of turnout gear, the armor these fireslayers wear into battle, costs $2,000. That’s for a department of nearly 50 members.
Then there’s training, inspections, testing and servicing equipment, keeping trucks up to date and complying with codes.
Hale compares the department to a sports team. “We have a deep bench. We’re a team of specialists, and we work well together.”
All the training in the world can’t prepare you like a real fire, though. “You try, and you succeed at some things, and fail at others and learn from those failures,” Hale said.
Another part of that pride in the past is the department’s older members who stay involved.
Several are in their 70s and still go to calls, or at least report to the firehouse when the alarm goes off to help in other ways.
Glenn Wilson is the longest-serving member, a 52-year veteran. Eight members have served more than 40 years, with four of those nearing 50 years of service.
Tater Anderson and Harvey Hennis both started in 1964. They remember a lot of changes, mainly in firefighting techniques and technologies.
“Back in the old days, we had to haul water around [to fires]. There’s more hydrants now, which is a good thing,” Anderson said.
One thing never changes, Anderson said: “Fire calls never come at a convenient time. We’ve missed meals, church, holidays, birthdays... We went to seven fires on one Christmas Day.”
Leaving work is a little harder these days, but Hennis said most employers are understanding.
Most people don’t understand what’s involved in the job, Hale said. “You never know how much you need us — until you need us.”
There have been triumphs and tragedies. Countless lives have been saved in fires and wrecks, but the ones that couldn’t be saved are the ones that weigh the heaviest.
Hale recalls a trailer fire in Fairview that took the lives of three people, including a little girl.
Still, the department turned that into a positive, with members beginning a crusade to visit every trailer in the region and check, replace or install smoke detectors.
Don Houk, a member since 1986, remembers the toughest fire was on Swanson Street in Galax, when firefighters arrived to find a house fully ablaze with two elderly women dead inside.
When police and firefighters determined they’d been killed before the fire started, “we realized we had to work around a crime scene to keep the house from burning down,” said Houk, who is also a police officer.
They were successful, and the preserved evidence led to the conviction of a man who beat the women to death and set the house on fire after robbing them.
Hennis said one memorable fire was at the old Floyd car dealership, when oil cans exploded from the heat, making the floor slick and dangerous. “There were fumes. It was slick. And the paint cans started skidding across the floor and exploding.”
Fire isn’t the only element that has to be fought. There’s also the cold.
Hennis recalls a fire call in the winter when the firefighters’ turnout gear froze so stiff that their coats could stand up when they took them off.
He got frostbite on that call, and still suffers the effects decades later. “I can’t get warm. I still sleep under multiple blankets.”
Even getting to a fire can be hazardous. Anderson remembers the late James Talley driving an engine over a bridge when it broke, sending the truck into a creek.
As part of the department’s dedication to the future, it has been running a cadet training program for about 10 years. The program graduated seven cadets last year, and three signed on as full-fledged firefighters.
Other young members like Drew Bobbitt, Nic Moser and Drew Burnett are cadet grads.
“Even if they don’t become firefighters, they’ve learned to give back to the community, so it’s still worth it,” Hale said. “Our intention with the cadets is to recruit, but also to give these kids an extra boost in life.”
Zeke Morton, a 23-year veteran, said the department can always use new volunteers, but GVFD has never had to actively recruit. “We don’t need to. They come to us. If somebody is knocking your door down to join, you figure they’re going to be dedicated.”
Hale said some people have asked to join after watching the department fight a fire. “They’ve seen the controlled chaos at a fire scene and been impressed by what we do.”
Sometimes, it’s in the blood. There are numerous examples of second- or even third-generation firefighters in Galax.
Often, members will recruit one-on-one, if they know someone who they believe has what it takes to commit to the fire department.
Theron Billings was one of Morton’s recruits. He joined four years ago.
“Before I joined, I never realized how much training was involved, or how much work there is to do after a fire is over,” Billings said. “You can be at a fire for four hours, then spend two hours cleaning the trucks and equipment — and then you’ll get another call and have to do it all again.”
Much of that training is to cut down on response times. The average response time is four to six minutes, “from the time they get the call at [the central E-911 dispatch] to when the first truck leaves the firehouse,” Hale said.
“And we leave the firehouse with a prayer for taking us there and bringing us back,” Hennis said. “And for allowing us to be with people in their time of need.”
Adding to the speed is planning for anything and everything. Firefighters learn the layouts of buildings in the area, where the hazards are, what’s stored inside and the building materials used.
“We have a plan,” Anderson said. “But no two fires are alike.”
“When the siren goes off, in 10 or 12 minutes, max, we’ll be there,” Hale said. “If something burns down, that means it was too far gone to save before we got there.”
Hale said firefighters are a unique breed, especially volunteers.
It’s a job.
It’s a lifestyle.
But most of all, it’s the ultimate self-sacrificing community service.
“As a firefighter, you have to know when you respond to a call that you’re putting your life on the line — but it never enters your mind.”