Volunteers define who, what we are

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2016

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    Whenever there is a dispute between Isle of Wight’s fire and rescue organizations and the county, the volunteers invariably talk about the money they save taxpayers.

    It’s an understandable and easy-to-digest reason for supporting the seven organizations, the oldest of which was established nearly 80 years ago.

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    I would suggest, however, that Isle of Wight’s volunteer fire and rescue organizations have value that goes far beyond tax dollars saved. They define who we are, and what we are.

    These organizations were created by community business and civic leaders who saw a need to protect their own property, but also the property and lives of their neighbors. They cobbled together the funds to buy rudimentary equipment, rounded up friends and neighbors, and created fire departments, and later rescue squads, to perform vital services that were otherwise totally lacking in a rural community.

    Along the way, they created far more. They built a network of volunteers willing to crawl out of bed at all hours to man fire hoses or ambulances.


    An esprit de corps has existed among these volunteers that extends far beyond their own membership in their squad or department. Over the decades, their wives and children have become involved until there are generations following each other into community service.

    It’s been a lot of years since I actively served in the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department, but some of my fondest memories of family and close associates reside in that corner of my brain that was devoted to the department.

    We — and members of every other department in this county — watched many a sunrise after all-night major fire incidents and always knew that, back to station, wives and children busy fixing breakfast.

    We can recall radio dispatchers who knew us personally and whom we felt were “watching out” for us as we responded.

    Town police, county deputies, state troopers — all of them worked, as I suspect they still do, to back up the work being done by fire and rescue workers.

    And the cycle continues. Children of volunteers learn the hard-to-define but nonetheless valuable benefits of volunteerism, and a high percentage of volunteers’ children go on to become community servants themselves in a variety of ways.

    Here’s another point that needs to be made about the volunteer organizations. Isle of Wight County residents should not be fearful that having fire and rescue services in the hands of volunteers in some way diminishes the service they perform. It does not.

    One of the things that bothers volunteers (and I count myself among them still) is the view that volunteers are amateurs and the paid folks are the professionals. That’s dead wrong. Today’s volunteer fire and rescue workers are fully trained and, in fact, some of them are career paid people who love the work so much that they volunteer in their spare time. Or, they do so until some paid union official tells them they no longer can.

    Isle of Wight is growing. People moving here from larger communities often expect full “urban” services though, in many instances, they couldn’t wait to get out of their urban settings. Nevertheless, many of them have quickly caught the bug of small community life and have become volunteers themselves. That sort of involvement by our residents needs to be encouraged and cultivated.

    Volunteerism is an important part of this county’s social fabric. We need to embrace it more fully rather than turn away from it. At this stage in our history, local government and the volunteers both need to take a very close look at the value of what we now have.