Cadet Firefighters Give Back
LEXINGTON, Va., March 15, 2018—More than two dozen cadets are now members of the VMI Fire Club, a cadet organization that was revived in 2015. But since there’s very seldom a fire on post—thankfully—these cadets instead give back to the Rockbridge area community by volunteering with local fire departments.
This year, seven cadets are volunteering with the South River Volunteer Fire Department, while seven are with the Lexington Fire Department and six are with the Kerrs Creek Volunteer Fire Department. All have standing permits with the commandant’s office to leave post for volunteer service. First class cadets typically drive themselves to the fire stations, while underclass cadets get rides either with 1st Class cadets or with fire department members from the community.
One of the club’s newer members, Elizabeth Jackson ’20, is currently enrolled in Firefighter I and II classes at the South River VFD, and she’s also spending Friday nights as part of the duty crew at the Lexington Fire Department. She’s found that the extra time commitments off post are challenging to manage—yet well worth the strain.
“It’s hard,” she said of balancing school work and firefighter training. “I try to do most of my work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays so I don’t have to worry about it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” The firefighting classes are held Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and also on Sundays.
“It’s a hassle when you’re getting back at 9:30 at night and you have something due in the morning,” she added. “The class definitely pushes you to handle your time better.”
Jackson said that her decision to join the Fire Club was driven by a desire to give back to the community and counter the sometimes negative stereotypes of cadets.
“I felt that this was a nice way to give back to Lexington, and I’ve always been someone who wanted to do service to others, so to have the opportunity to save lives and property is something that really entices me,” she stated.
Jackson is one of only two females in the Firefighter I and II classes, and she’s the only female cadet. She doesn’t give gender much thought, though. “You could say it’s the same as coming [to VMI]—you don’t see many females,” she remarked.
She has, though, had to deal with comments relating to her stature. At 5’1”, Jackson doesn’t fit the mold of what some people think of when the word “firefighter” is mentioned.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Aren’t you too tiny?’ and I say, ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,’” she noted.
Ian Morris ’19, the assistant cadet in charge of the Fire Club, has been running calls, cleaning trucks, and assisting with fundraisers at the South River VFD for over a year now. He joined the fire club after Breakout his rat year.
“To me, that seemed to me the best way to give back,” he commented. “I enjoy interacting and giving back to the community.
Growing up in Buckingham County, Morris found himself drawn to the community spirit that rural fire departments often engender, so the Fairfield community that’s home to South River was an easy fit.
This January, at the fire department’s annual banquet, Morris was recognized for taking the second-highest number of training hours in 2017—a whopping 283 hours, and that on top of a full class load at VMI. His number of hours was topped only by that of his longtime friend and roommate Zach Thoele ’19, who completed 299 hours.
Morris explained, though, that it wasn’t as hard as it seems. “A lot of the fire classes are catered toward volunteers,” he stated. “The idea is that you’re going to work a 9-to-5 job.”
Thoele agreed, saying, “It’s worth sacrificing some sleep over.”
Working as a firefighter does require extensive training. But some things that Morris and Thoele do for the fire department don’t require much training at all, but are equally beneficial, such as helping with the chicken barbecues that are a staple of the department’s fundraising efforts. Last summer, Morris and Thoele even came back to help at the department’s annual carnival, held in late July.
This year, Morris, Thoele, and Jon Kaiser ’18 are spending Thursday nights at the department, from 7 p.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. Friday, at the department as its overnight crew.
“It’s my little short reprieve from this place,” said Morris. “It motivates me to do homework. It’s quieter, unless something happens.”
Because of the quiet, and the fact that all of the fire departments have internet access, Morris said it’s not hard to keep up with his studies. As a history major, he does a lot of writing papers—and once he and the others have completed their chores for the department, there’s plenty of time for hitting the books and the laptop.
“We get settled for the night, and it’s quieter than post … we’ll usually work until the same time as VMI because our internal clock won’t make us go to sleep until 11:30 anyway,” said Morris.
Many of the calls that the South River department responds to are for automobile wrecks, and the majority of those are on Interstate 81, which is less than a mile from the department’s headquarters.
And while most wreck calls end with a sense of resolution—the injured go to a hospital, recover, and move on with their lives—some do not. Morris and Thoele each recounted that their toughest call involved a wreck in which the driver involved had already died at the scene. The first responders could do nothing but wait for the coroner to arrive.
“It didn’t affect me on a personal level,” said Morris. “I didn’t know the gentleman [who died]. But sometimes you realize you can’t help everybody. … That’s just the way the world is sometimes.”
Thoele offered similar sentiments, saying, “That was definitely an eye-opener. … You realize how short life is.”
“All of the cadet members are fantastic,” said club adviser Maj. Tim Burrows, who serves as assistant director of assessment in the Office of Institutional Research and also volunteers with the Lexington Fire Department. “We take a lot of pride in having really cream-of-the-crop cadets.”
That good outcome starts with a rigorous self-selection process. Any cadet with a grade point average of 2.3 or higher can join the Fire Club, but Burrows is very open with prospective members about the high level of responsibility demanded—and what they might see.
“We are very up front with the cadets,” he said. “This job does ask a lot of these young folks. Whether you’re career or volunteer, college student or not, you’re very rapidly thrown into high-stress situations. You see a lot of things that perhaps 22-year-olds necessarily shouldn’t see, but it’s part of the job.”
The cadets said they see South River as a sanctuary from VMI—and a place that offers a new perspective. “It’s my safe haven out there,” said Thoele. “It allows me to breathe, and shows me that at the end of the day, there’s something greater than myself out there. No matter what happens, no matter how bad school is, I can always go out there and rely on possibly being able to help someone on their worst day.”
Community appreciation for the cadets runs deep. “[The cadets] compliment the volunteer base and are invaluable to the service we provide here,” said Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson.
“We can’t say enough good things about [the cadets],” said Ben Wilmer, chief of the South River Volunteer Fire Department.
Wilmer explained that cadets have been volunteering at South River for three years now. Out of 25 total volunteers, seven are cadets. All but one are certified firefighters, and most are certified to drive the fire engines. Typically, cadets staff the overnight crews at South River three or four nights a week.
“They’re a tremendous amount of help,” said Wilmer. “Without them, everybody would have to do more.”