Volunteer firefighters are expected to train for hundreds of hours and perform the same tasks as their career counterparts in their spare time after working a full 40-hour week elsewhere. Across the nation volunteer fire departments are struggling to keep their doors
open for one reason or another. For those of us that have been in the fire service for the last ten years, you have heard time and time again that volunteer firefighters are a ‘dying breed.’
According to a 2014 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) profile, there were 1,134,400 career and volunteer firefighters across this great nation. Of those firefighters, 788,250 or 69% were volunteers. It is clear that emergency calls are up everywhere, but the number of volunteers has declined more than 10 percent over the last several decades.
This nation-wide obstacle is not an issue in a small southwest corner of Augusta County, Virginia where one fire company is beating the odds and winning. Swoope Volunteer Fire Company (SVFC), under the direction of Fire Chief Kevin L. Wilkes and President Linda Brooks, both of who will argue that volunteerism in their department is blooming like never before. SVFC is one of only four fire companies left in Augusta County that remain 100 percent volunteer, even though many volunteer stations have been assigned career personnel from the Augusta County Fire & Rescue Department to supplement staffing.
SVFC is a rural fire company just outside of the city limits of Staunton, Virginia located in the Shenandoah Valley at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Surprisingly SVFC does not have the problem most other volunteer companies have. Vice President Jessica Botkin stated, “We can barely keep up with new applications for membership.” Since
Wilkes moved to the area and joined SVFC, he has been directly responsible, along with few other key personnel, for the rise in membership from only 14 members in 2005 to over 56 active members today, 21 of whom are female. Wilkes has personally recruited over 25 members in the course of the last two years. Wilkes attributes a great deal of his success to his mentors in the fire service, a few of which are former Fire Chief Brian Butler who is currently assigned as a Fire Captain for the City of Staunton and Rick Lasky who is an emergency services consultant, motivational speaker, author of Pride and Ownership: A Firefighter’s Love of the Job and co-author of Five Alarm Leadership: From the Firehouse to the Fireground.
Many people want to know how Wilkes does it when so many other volunteer fire companies are losing members to second and third jobs, lack of good leadership, family commitments, divorce and other stressful situations.
Wilkes stated that it is simple and he has a secret weapon… “Treat ALL of your members like they are family, your family!” Wilkes goes on to say, “Never demand, always ask while leading by example.” Each new member is assigned two mentors during their probationary period to help guide them through the initial process of the fire service and to make good decisions. President Brooks stated, “We have a great opportunity here with our new members, not only to watch them transform into fire service professionals, but to mold them the way we desire, turning them into highly-motivated individuals with critical-thinking skills who save life, property and the environment.”
This kind of teamwork and coordination is paying off big for the company who is very proud of their annual ‘out-of-chute’ average time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds, only missing one call in the last two years, all while averaging nine volunteer members per call.
Wilkes admitted he has worked for a few ‘not-so-good’ leaders in past and knows what not to do, reminding his members to ensure they have fun when they come to the firehouse. “Our Company Core Values are P-R-I-D-E; Professional at all times, Respect Team Members and the Community, Innovation – Always Raise the Bar, Determination – Never Give Up and Everyone Goes Home – We’ve Got Your Six!” Wilkes stated proudly. “Little things make a BIG difference, my officers and I will be the first ones to take out the trash, mop the floors and wash dishes,” Wilkes explained. “All of our members have Pride and Ownership in their company, and it shows.” Wilkes mentioned that with a very modest budget for a rural department, leadership can’t afford NOT to consider rewarding and recognizing members.
SVFC has many programs to help their members relax and enjoy the ‘family’ environment, but also become successful and grow personally and professionally. With exciting programs like; regular family movie night, karaoke night, fitness sessions, family meals, study groups for fire service and high school classes, sessions that provide guidance for members looking to go college, cookouts, and mentorship programs, what is not to love? Members are encouraged to bring their family, neighbors and friends to events to watch a movie on the big screen or to help Santa Claus during the holiday season, who visits the community on a fire truck passing out candy canes to children or all ages. “People come to visit the firehouse and see our comradery and family spirit, and they want to be a part of this team,” stated Deputy Chief Chris Botkin.
According to Wilkes he has a second secret weapon, “We strive to make every member not only feel like this is their ‘home,’ but also to accomplish their goals, and never except failure.” Wilkes proudly boasts about his volunteers, “thirty percent of this rural fire company has earned or in the process of earning a college degree,” and “we currently have twenty-two certified firefighters and twenty certified EMTs.”
On August 16, 2016, Wilkes was presented with the Community Builders Award by the Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Masons of Virginia, for Recognition of Outstanding Service to the Community.