- Last Updated on 04:09 PM 03/13/14
- BY Ashley Hodge
Starting out with one fire truck stored in a small garage on the corner of Leda Grove Road and a siren that alerted the firemen of danger, North Halifax Volunteer Fire Department has been a welcome presence in the community for 50 years.
Maintaining a growing fleet, the fire department boasts several fire trucks, a brush truck, several EMS vehicles and a state-of-the-art helipad.
The last two living active charter members, L.C. Fisher Jr. and Hugh Grey Hendricks, are proud to see the department still functioning.
“It makes me feel good that we have continued to move forward for the whole 50 years,” said Fisher.
These fireman have been with the department since it all began in March of 1964 when a group of men met as the community’s Young Farmer’s Club in the old Republican Grove school building with former vo-ag teacher Jesse Crews as their leader.
Fire Marshall Bill Rowland met with the men and helped establish the department on March 10 when the Rev. L. L. Schwemer was elected as the department’s first fire chief.
Schwemer was the one member of their 41 charter members to have previous experience in a fire department.
He had been a member of the Piney River Fire Department.
E. B. Anderson, E. T. Conner, E. R. Harris, I. L. Hunt, J. C. Moorefield and T. L. Worsham are the remaining inactive charter members.
Come summer time of 1964, the department purchased two trucks, a 1947 International pumper and a 1953 Chevrolet tanker. That fall, construction began on a new firehouse.
Two years later, the second fire chief was elected, R.E. Duncan.
In 1978, a quick-dump system was installed on the tanker, and in 1979 the department purchased a 1979 Chevrolet mini-pumper and built a portable tank.
In Jan. of 1984, the department purchased a new four-wheel drive Chevrolet crash truck.
In addition to expanding their fleet over the years, the department has seen the means of communication improve greatly.
After starting with that first siren in 1976, they purchased 20 plectrons after the first dispatch system was formed. Plectrons were boxes that could sit in the home of the fireman or could be placed in a vehicle.
Fisher said his box stayed in his truck, and when he was out in the field, his horn would start blowing when the plectron went off.
Then in 1983 the first pagers were issued to members.
Hendricks recalls a time when even the first radios wouldn’t have signals in all of their coverage areas.
“We had a call up on the road just above the Pittsylvania County line, and someone would have to stay and relay the call to Halifax,” said Hendricks.
North Halifax now has the help of a repeater that was installed on their tower that automatically replays.
“It’s 95 percent better,” said Fisher in regards to one of their biggest changes, communication.
“When the county put in the 911 system, it sped up your response time. It gets the call to more people at the same time.”
The year 2001 brought about another change for the department as it began transporting patients to area hospitals.
Today they are still one of two departments who transport patients.
They began with the purchase of one truck purchased from the Halifax County Rescue Squad.
Another ambulance was purchased in August of 2001, and in the fall of 2006 the first two EMTs were hired, so the department could have coverage at all times.
The department now has six paid employees including EMTs, EMT-enhanced and one paramedic.
While the equipment brought major changes, the biggest change Fisher and Hendricks has seen over the years is the volunteerism.
While the number of men helping with the department hasn’t changed much, the time they can put into it has changed.
“They haven’t dwindled in numbers, but they have dwindled in time they have to devote to the department,” said Fisher.
When they first began, the fire department was comprised mostly of farmers, and those numbers have dropped as well.
“It was a lot of farmers in this area, and now it’s not that many. A lot have to go out somewhere to work, so it has cut the help,” said Fisher.
When Fisher and Hendricks first joined, the volunteering gave them and their fellow farmers something to do.
The volunteers now are busier with more organizations and jobs that they are involved in.
“We have men and women working in Lynchburg, South Boston, at power plants, at Huber, and some of them have to get up at 4 in the morning to go to work to get there by 6 a.m., and that doesn’t give them much time at home at night,” said Hendricks.
The number of hours of training required also has affected the number of volunteers.
“The hours have went up gradually as we’ve been in it, and it takes more time to get to the standards we are at now,” said Fisher.
But as far as Fisher is concerned, his training is over.
“I’ve reached the age I’ve slowed down,” said Fisher.
Nevertheless, the two men are still helping the department any chance they can.
Fisher served as chief from January of 1968 to around April or May of 2011 with another fireman holding the position for two of those years.
“When I was fire chief, I’d draw a chain on the board, and I’d write chief, assistant chief down to a regular member,” said Fisher.
“I’d tell them ‘the chain is only as strong as the weakest link.’ It makes no difference if the weakest link is chief or the man who just got in. The team is only as strong as the weakest person. It’s a team effort.”
Hendricks has shared his team efforts over the years as holding positions of assistant fire chief, serving on the board of directors secretary and holding positions of president and now vice president.
Ronnie Waller serves as the current fire chief with Jody Conner as assistant fire chief.
Over the years, these men have had plenty of long nights and have had unfortunate nights of losing residents in house fires.
Fisher and Hendricks have witnessed “quite a few” major accidents.
“A lot of people have lost their lives in house fires and wrecks. We’ve ran up on a whole lot of those people who didn’t make it,” said Hendricks.
While no one was injured, and no homes were destroyed, one incident they remember vividly occurred in February of either 2009 or 2008.
Hendricks recalled spending Sunday and Monday fighting fires all day and night.
It was too many calls for them to remember them all.
“They were scattered everywhere that day, and the wind was blowing like the dickens,” he added.
As soon as the men would get one settled, they would get called out to the next.
“We stayed on the road that day. People even brought us food to the scenes. That was the biggest one day I remember,” said Fisher.
When the men face days like that one, Fisher said it’s just adrenaline that keep them going.
“To me to be a volunteer fireman, you have to be kind of crazy anyway,” said Fisher.
“Everybody else is running out of a building, and you are running in.”
Hendricks agreed, adding, “You have to jump out of bed at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning in zero degree weather and all. You have to be a good person.”
One thing that each fireman has in common is the motto that they learn in training, “Take care of yourself, then your fellow fireman.”
“You have to remember that you don’t want anyone to get hurt or killed,” said Fisher. “That’s in every class, whether its fire, EMS or what, and you have to keep it in the back of your mind.”
Both men agreed that if any fireman “told you they don’t get a little excited when that call goes off, then they told you something wrong,” but the men said firemen have to take a step back and use common sense.
“When the tone goes off, it excites you for a minute, then you have to start thinking about what’s going on and don’t go wild,” said Fisher.
Hendricks said, “People will say I’m going to see how fast I can get there. Well, I’m going to make all the time I can, but I’m going to stay safe while I do it. If I kill myself, it won’t do anybody any good.”
The firemen of this department have been lucky thus far. While they have lost members in non-fire related accidents, they have not experienced any fatalities in their department while responding to a call.
Each man and woman who has devoted their time to the department has provided these two men with an experience that makes these two feel like they have been working with family all these years.
During the time when more farmers were involved, if one man had to return to the tobacco field after a fire call, the other would get the fire equipment ready for the next day.
As the fire department celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, the community will continue to recognize these firemen throughout the year with their first celebration being a turkey luncheon set for Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
Lunch plates are $8 for adults and $4 for children and will include turkey, potatoes, string beans, dressing, gravy, rolls and many homemade desserts
North Halifax Volunteer Fire Department has hosted its annual turkey luncheon for 33 years.
The North Halifax Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary, which was organized in Dec. 1972 to support the fire department and help raise funds, will organize other celebrations as well.
On April 6 at 1 p.m. they will host the sixth annual Vera Bradley bingo night.
“That will be the only time you will see 50 women quiet in one room…until they win of course,” said Fisher.
Another one of their standing traditions is the annual marathon held in September on the Saturday after Labor Day, which also will continue the theme of their 50th year celebration.
The marathon began many years ago after the department decided that instead of having many fundraisers throughout the year, they would host one major event.
According to Fisher and Hendricks, it has been a very successful event that brings in people from “all over” including former North Halifax community residents.
These two men have been with the department since the farmers joined together to form what used to be more of a community organization.
“It was somewhere to go, something to do…we just wanted to do it for the community,” said Fisher.
After helping Liberty Fire Department with a fire at Ellis Creek and admiring the men at the departments at Brookneal and Halifax, Hendricks said that’s when the community gained interest and started talking about making their own department in North Halifax.
People could say these men and the other 41 charter members started as farmers and became firemen establishing a lasting department.