Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church

Fairfax County boasts an outstanding Fire and Rescue Department, with well-trained personnel, state-of-the-art equipment, and quick response times. The County’s search-and-rescue component, known worldwide as Virginia Task Force 1 (VATF-1) was deployed to Haiti on Sunday to find earthquake victims and support local agencies with equipment and supplies to aid in the rescue and recovery effort.

One of the unique aspects of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department is the partnership with 12 volunteer fire companies across the county. Fire volunteers in Fairfax County first organized in the early 1900s, and the career/volunteer fire and rescue system formally was established in 1949, when Fairfax County was a rural community.
Today, 718 men and women volunteer at fire stations, from Bailey’s Crossroads and Annandale, to Dunn Loring and Burke, Vienna and Fair Oaks. Operational volunteers provide firefighting and emergency medical services; administrative members manage their non-profit status, fundraise, and operate canteen units called out for large and sustained emergencies. 40 percent of the volunteers are female.

Operational volunteers train at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy and can work side-by-side with career personnel. The volunteers also host blood drives, provide fire safety education at community events (virtually during Covid-19), and raise funds to purchase fire engines, ambulances, and other apparatus. A fire engine or pumper can cost $650,000 to $750,000, relieving taxpayers of that expense.

Barely a month before Covid-19 shut down normal activity, professional and volunteer companies responded to the Poag Street fire in Groveton, the most expensive fire ($48 million in fire losses) in Fairfax County history.

The cause of the fire was smoking materials improperly discarded in a trash chute. The block-long fire destroyed two multi-story buildings under construction, as well as 14 nearby occupied townhouses, and damaged five other apartment buildings, 14 additional townhouses, and 29 vehicles. More than 100 units were assigned to the multi-day emergency and 17 volunteer units covered 25 shifts at the fireground and supporting stations.

Covid-19 meant that volunteer fire departments took a huge hit on their fundraising activities. Charitable gaming activities and facility rentals were suspended for seven months, and volunteer companies were unable to participate in community events.

Even recruitment suffered, since volunteers could not be processed for fingerprints and background checks. However, one of the principles maintained by firefighters is “assess, adapt, and overcome.” Volunteers responded to new calls from the pandemic: humanitarian assistance by distributing food to thousands of at-risk families and delivering prescription medications to older residents.

The 12 volunteer companies have their own governance structures, but are overseen by a Volunteer Fire Commission, appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The vice-chair of the Commission is Gerald B. Strider, longtime president of the Bailey’s Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department at Station 10.

Gerry has served our community for 50 years, and responded to the Lake Barcroft flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes, the Skyline Towers collapse, the Air Florida crash, the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon, the 2010 Snowmageddon that collapsed Station 10’s roof, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Gerry has recruited more than 750 volunteers, and is a role model and inspiration to volunteers, whether long-time or rookie.

If you, or someone you know, would like more information about the Fairfax County Volunteer Fire Service, visit www.fcvfra.org. It’s a great way to support and give back to our Fairfax County Community!

 Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]