The “great majority” of firefighters have a personal link to saving lives and property, says Ian Weston, the president of the Falls Church Volunteer Fire Department, which celebrated its 90th anniversary in late February.
“We want to help people.”
Weston was 15 when his grandfather suffered cardiac arrest, and it took emergency workers 35 minutes to reach him. En route, paramedics gave Weston’s grandmother CPR instructions over the phone, but it wasn’t enough to save his grandfather’s life. Two years later Weston became a volunteer firefighter, and after he moved to the area, he joined the Falls Church force.
Firefighters “have a real passion for what we do,” Weston said. ”Firefighting gets in your blood.”
The chief of the Falls Church volunteers is Kevin Henry who says “we are always looking for new members” who can act as emergency operations volunteers for fire and rescue, or help on the administrative side.
“Volunteers can support the fire department in 100 different ways, based on your interest and experience,” said Weston.
Right now the department has 63 volunteer members, including nine women, seven of whom work in emergency operations.
That membership Is “a huge commitment,” Henry said, generally requiring two years to complete the approximately 500 hours of training, plus more than 200 hours annually for continuing education, attendance at public events, and mandatory meetings.
Applicants must be in good physical condition and pass a physical exam.
When attorney Paul Melnick joined the force in 1999, training “basically lasted about six months with a few classes in CPR, and radios,” he said. Since 9/11, training is “a lot more stringent,” said Weston, especially in the national capital region with its high standards.
Members may shift roles at the fire department like Melnick did when he went over to administration from the operations side, due to his young children. Once his children get older, he said he hopes to return to operations. He serves as a pro bono attorney for the department.
“This is a very serious mission,” Henry said, “a very serious activity which requires a lot of time upfront,” and he reiterated the department’s mission: To aid in the preservation of life and property, which the volunteers do, working closely with the Arlington County Fire Department which staffs the Falls Church fire hall with career firefighters 24/7.
“We provide free training,” Henry said, which is partially funded by the work of the administrative team who fundraises and solicits donations twice a year with letters, and the city of Falls Church helps out, too, Henry said.
Volunteers don’t pay for any equipment, unless they want the “Mercedes of things” like leather boots, Weston said.
The minimum age to become a Falls Church volunteer firefighter is 18, but a parent’s consent will open entry for those who are younger. There is no age maximum as long as members can maintain physical and health requirements.
“We’ll keep you on our rolls,” said Weston, “regardless if you are 18 or 85.”
Michael Leith is in his 14th month of training for the fire department, and “so far, so good. I actually got to go on one call,” to Eden Center for the fire there in January. He got the call at work to help out, and his boss gave him the okay.
“I keep my gear in the car,” said Leith (and so does Weston who says he has “a very understanding wife”).
Henry said a third way volunteers help out is by supplementing the staff, like Leith did, especially when there’s a major event, like Eden Center’s two-alarm fire.
Many members live in Falls Church and can respond quickly to a fire call, according to Weston.
In their “off” hours, Henry is a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, Leith is an IT consultant.
And Weston, who is also the fire department’s web manager, is the executive director of the American Trauma Society which just happens to be across the street from the fire station.
Was that planned?
“No,” Weston smiled. “I was just lucky.”