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Oldest members contribute lifetimes of service

For the past 10 years, the two oldest members of the Halifax Volunteer Fire Department, H. C. Phillips Sr. and H. L. “Pete” Myers, have witnessed a decline in participation. 

Even though the department has approximately 25 members on roll, Phillips said about 10 firemen may show up at night and even fewer respond to calls in the day. 

“Something has to be done,” said Phillips who says some days he is the only one from his department to respond to calls during the day.

“If it weren’t for calling in surrounding fire departments for aid, we’d be in trouble,” Phillips added.  

While Myers said “a lot of good young firemen” are involved in the department that they couldn’t do without, he agreed with Phillips that additional volunteers are desperately needed.

 “It would make us feel better to have some more help, enough to take care of the situation,” Myers added. “When you have a small amount helping, and you are working those so hard, sometimes it’s more than they can take care of.” 

Community volunteers have been fighting fires with the Halifax Volunteer Fire Department since it was established in 1948 when the Lions Club of Halifax purchased the department’s first truck for $450, according to Phillips, who has been with the department since he was a junior fireman joining at the age of 18 in 1960.

Phillips was a young child at the time the department was established, but he well remembers his father, H. L. Phillips, serving as the assistant fire chief. 

He said he could not find records of the number of charter members but recalled the fire department starting in a one-room building where patient transport is located today. 

 “I remember it being 30-something or more participating when I was real young. We’d have a meeting, and you couldn’t pack everyone in the fire house,” Phillips added.  

Nine years after the Halifax Volunteer Fire Department was formed, Myers began fighting fires when he helped organize the Liberty Volunteer Fire Department. 

Myers and others in the community saw a need for establishing the department because the closest fire departments were in Halifax and Brookneal.

When asked why he personally wanted to fight fires, Myers said, “I just wanted to help the community. I wanted to save somebody’s life and property, and it was always needed.” 

The firemen in Liberty organized their department in a two-story building and purchased their first fire truck from Camp Pickett, a 1938 International fire truck. 

It wasn’t until the 70s that the firemen began using pagers, so the firehouses had to use sirens to alert the firemen. 

At Liberty, a house about 50 feet from the firehouse had a phone that would ring if there was a fire call, and the resident of the home would then flip a switch that would set off the siren at the firehouse, said Myers. 

Three of the Halifax Volunteer Fire Department’s firemen had telephones in their houses, “kind of like a party line,” and every time the phone rang at the fire station, it would ring at their houses. The firemen would then call back to the fire station, so the “little siren would go off,” then that person would drive to the station “to blow the big siren.” 

“So everyone had to live in town or close by. Most of our firemen now live on the verge of our territory, and it takes a while for them to get to the fires,” said Phillips. 

Before he joined the department, Phillips said he was being trained. His father used to take Phillips and his brother to the training ground behind the high school.

Phillips recalled starting out with “the basic stuff,” learning how to take care of the station, how to pack the hoses, learning every piece of equipment on the truck, and then they were taught how to put out fires in the building at the fire training ground. 

“We were trained on everything. We were even trained and taught to drive the truck even though we couldn’t drive until we were 21,” said Phillips, who was excited when he could join the fire department. 

“The excitement was the biggest thing. From the day I can remember hearing that big siren blow down there, I could feel it, and I always wanted to be a part of that,” said Phillips who noted he soon realized how serious the fires could be when he began seeing people trapped. 

Starting out as a junior fireman, oftentimes he would be in school when Halifax VFD would get a fire call, and “back then you could leave school to go to a fire,” he explained.

The firemen would get to the firehouse and get onto the fire truck anyway they could. 

“It’s a wonder one of us didn’t get hurt,” said Phillips. 

Often times during the day, it would just be junior firemen at the fire besides the driver, Phillips added. 

He recalled one incident junior firemen handled that took place in Halifax where the War Memorial stands today. 

Back then a Texaco station was located on that corner, and Phillips recalled the day when static electricity caused a fire in the ground where a tanker truck was placed. 

The Texaco worker panicked and pulled the hose out of the ground causing the gas to run out the hose and down the street where Pino’s is located today, Phillips said. 

“We took a fire truck down the corner and got in front of it. We started at the bottom sweeping the fire up the hill. God was watching over us because we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Phillips. 

The junior firemen began dragging a large hose up the street, but they couldn’t lift it on their own, so they began asking anyone they saw to come help them pull it. 

“We knocked the fire off the gas all the way up to the Texaco. By then, the South Boston Fire Department got there, and we swept the fire off the top of the tanker truck, and it went out,” said Phillips. 

“We had never trained for that. Someone was telling us what to do.” 

Myers recalled the Texaco fire incident, but he wasn’t serving on Halifax’s Volunteer Fire Department at that time, and Liberty Volunteer Fire Department wasn’t called to assist. 

Just like Phillips, Myers recalled going to fires at a moment’s notice, regardless of the circumstances. 

Myers said he would park his truck so it would face the road and laid out his fire clothes so he could leave at any moment. 

During the day, Myers also ran a store in Liberty just a few miles from the fire station. When there was a fire, his mother would come and run the store. If she wasn’t available, he would lock up the store until he could get back. 

Many times when there was a fire call during the day, Myers said other than him there was only one other fireman in Liberty who didn’t have a public job but worked on his farm not far from the fire house. 

Phillips said often he and his wife, Mary, would be out somewhere in the county having dinner, and he would have to leave her and their children to go to a fire. 

“She would tell someone she knew that I had gone to a fire, and she never had a problem finding a ride home with the kids,” said Phillips. 

In 1978, Myers moved to Halifax and joined the Halifax Volunteer Fire Department. 

He recalled fighting many fires with Phillips, back then when the department would go all over the county fighting fires.  

Throughout the years, the men held several positions at the fire stations. 

Myers held every position but treasurer and secretary. 

“I was one of the main drivers until I was 75…nine times out of 10, I was the first one there,” said Myers. 

“Jack Slagle used to joke that I must have slept in my pickup at night.”

Phillips has been the department’s engineer, assistant engineer, fire chief, and now he serves as the safety officer. 

Even though Phillips still responds to fire calls, he said, “I am getting too old for this and too old to be doing this by myself.”  

The two remember a time when the fire department could potentially handle a fire call with just their department, if they had enough water. 

Now the two firemen agree the manpower has dwindled to the point where they need more than one department, not just for more water but also for manpower. Also, it is now required that at least two departments be called. 

Both agree the level of training required today has affected the participation level, and they said the firemen have more ways to spend their time than they did when they were that age. 

“Personally I think one of the reasons is all the regulations now. If you want to be a Firefighter 1, just a basic, that’s 80 hours. If you want to be an EMT, that takes 160 hours or more of training. That’s on your own time,” added Phillips.

“Junior firemen can’t even go to a fire unless he has Firefighter I training somewhere. A lot of the regulations are good in a way, but they aren’t thinking about the volunteer. People have too many other things to do these days than to try to spend that much time training and everything to go to a fire.” 

Myers feels the men don’t realize what they are getting into when they join. 

“I think they get a little more work or drilling and all than they thought, then they say this isn’t for me, and they just don’t come back,” said Myers. 

According to Phillips, when joining, the men have “so many meetings a quarter, so many drills, so many fire calls” to attend. 

“It’s a percentage of whatever the department has. Then if you don’t, you are given an opportunity to straighten up, and if you don’t, then you are dismissed from the fire department,” said Phillips.  

Myers and Phillips want to see more people involved in the county fire departments, and interested persons who reside in the Halifax area can call the station at 476-6001 or come by the station for more information.