Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad

by irene luck

“Volunteer” – one who renders a service while having no legal concern or interest in payment for the service; one who gives of their time and effort with no financial expectations.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School is one of the facilities members of the squad visit to talk about safety topics, as well as let the students experience the inside of the squad in a safe environment. Often, these visits result in thank you notes or letters of appreciation from the classes.

Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad members epitomize the definition of volunteerism, as the organization is still going strong 64 years after its formation. But, don’t let the name fool you – it’s not the only volunteer rescue squad in Louisa County.

An example of a Health and Wellness check station members of the Louisa County Rescue Squad set up at community events, neighborhood events, and at various shopping centers throughout the year. 

“We are just the oldest of the four existing organizations,” said Nick Fialo, Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad’s deputy chief. “At one time we joined our forces with Mineral Rescue Squad, and the name was modified from Louisa Volunteer Rescue to Louisa County Volunteer Rescue. When we became separate entities again, we just never changed our name back.”

Chartered in 1956, the unit was originally housed in the former Louisa Fire Department on Courthouse Squad (the brick building behind the courthouse). The organization moved to its current facility on Rescue Lane in the Louisa Industrial Air Park in 1994.

An example of a Health and Wellness check station members of the Louisa County Rescue Squad set up at community events, neighborhood events, and at various shopping centers throughout the year.

In those early years, rescue squad personnel applied basic first aid skills and transported patients to the nearest medical facility, which could have been the hospital in the town of Louisa or one of the larger ones in Richmond or Charlottesville. The most likely choices were the University of Virginia or Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University), as those were the two trauma hospitals.

Over time, training requirements became more stringent, causing volunteers to adapt and take state-certified courses to become basic emergency medical technicians. There were also higher levels of training offered, and many of the county’s volunteers took advantage of the offerings and advanced their skills to better serve the community. Now the organization features a blend of paramedics, trauma technicians, emergency medical technicians, and drivers among its 25 or so active members.

The first rescue squads were essentially station wagons converted to carry a stretcher and personnel. Today, the units are stocked with a variety of medical equipment and medications to handle a myriad of situations, providing vital life-saving measures to patients while en route to hospitals.

For many years, volunteers were the only fire and medical first responders in Louisa County, and it wasn’t unusual for a fire or rescue call to come in and employees leave work to respond with the blessing of their employers.

Several units from Louisa County Rescue Squad on the scene of a commercial fire at Orange Madison Cooperative earlier this year. Squads respond to the fire calls not only to assist residents or occupants of the dwelling, but also to serve as a rehab station for the firefighters.

As times changed, the population increased, and more people began to work outside the county or businesses were owned by larger entities. Thus, the flexibility to leave to answer calls was restricted. The county needed a more reliable response to medical calls, particularly during the daytime, and in 2010 began hiring career emergency service staff to man the ambulances.

Today, Louisa County has career fire and EMS personnel staffed 24/7 at four stations around the county – Louisa, Mineral, Zion Crossroads, and Holly Grove/Locust Creek. One station – Lake Anna Rescue – typically has personnel on duty Monday through Friday during the day. Zion Crossroads Volunteer Fire Department in the western end of Louisa County also has an ambulance housed at its fire station to help with calls in that district.

However, the need for volunteers wasn’t lost, just modified. Volunteers now assist the career crews when possible, often on weekends and evenings, to give them a bit of a respite.

“We are here to assist the career staff by providing an additional crew to the operation,” Fialo said. “The other rescue squads [Mineral, Lake Anna, and Holly Grove] also supplement the staffing in their districts with volunteer crews.”

Currently, the Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad is the most active of the county’s volunteer organizations. Volunteers man an average of 10 to 11 shifts, eight to 12 hours each, per week.

Community outreach is a key component of Louisa County Rescue Squad’s activities. Visiting with preschoolers and elementary school children are important aspects to that outreach in hopes that if an emergency should occur, the children will be less frightened by the lights, sirens, and experiences of the first responders.

“We typically try to have personnel staff the squad from about 6 or 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. However, sometimes we have crews that are only able to commit to an 8-hour shift,” Fialo said. “However, even an eight-hour shift relieves some of the pressure on the career staff, since we try to make those shifts during the daytime hours or from 6 p.m. at night until midnight or after, when most of the calls seem to occur.”

Louisa County is divided into geographic coverage areas designating which fire company or rescue squad is the “first due” unit – basically, the territory it’s responsible for responding to calls in.

“We have the largest first due area,” Fialo said.  “We cover both the Louisa (1) and Trevilians (6) districts – the area around the town of Louisa and northwest to Gordonsville, as well as west towards the county line.”

Last year, the various Louisa County units responded to over 6,000 calls for assistance, each one averaging two to three hours from start to finish because of the distance to the medical facilities.

Mineral Rescue Squad, Holly Grove Rescue Squad, and Lake Anna Rescue Squad also man volunteer crews as much as possible and answer calls in their first due or where needed based on their staffing. If a volunteer crew has a paramedic on board, they are often the ones to respond to the call in their district, allowing the career staff to stay in station for the next call.  If they are a basic level crew, they may respond to the call to assess the situation and can be the transport unit if the paramedic crew deems the call appropriate for their level of care.

“We work with all agencies to staff crews and cross over departments to accomplish that,” Fialo said. “If we have a driver and a unit and there is a medic at either Louisa or Mineral, we will join up with them to make a crew and answer the call. We are trying to provide a unified front; we are all working toward the same purpose and goal – to serve the citizens of Louisa County.”

Regular in-house training and monthly meetings are key to keeping operations running smoothly and efficiently. Squad members also participate in county wide and multi-jurisdictional training to maintain skills and earn continuing education credits necessary to keep state and national licenses.

But responding to calls for help aren’t the only things volunteer rescue squads do. In order to ensure a supply of volunteers, the Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad offers an EMT class annually, and there are also other opportunities to take the approximately four-month course at other departments. Attendees must be 16 years of age to take the class, which is also offered as an elective through Louisa County High School. The Louisa County Department of Fire and EMS, along with the various fire departments and rescue squads in Louisa and adjoining jurisdictions, also coordinate efforts to offer additional training opportunities and continuing education credits for members.

The Louisa County Board of Supervisors funds the operating budgets for the rescue squads, but that wasn’t always the case. Even today, the organizations conduct fundraisers for ancillary items they need or want.

Community outreach is the largest non-call function of the Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad, according to Fialo. “One of the key ways to keep and get members is to be visible in the community,” he said. “That means we need to be out and about in the public and at public events.”

Those outreach events include being at Louisa County High School varsity football games and at wrestling tournaments. They also attend the Louisa Volunteer Firemen’s Fair, Louisa County Arts Center events, community events, the Louisa County Agricultural Fair, and MMA fights. The rescue squad also partners with the Louisa County Department of Parks and Recreation to teach its CPR classes and be at its functions such as the Christmas parade, Fall Festival, and other activities that draw large crowds.

Visiting the elementary schools, day cares, and preschools in their district are also favorite activities of the members. The group also reaches out to the underserved and low income areas of their coverage area to provide basic blood pressure and diabetes checks and offer health pamphlets to the residents. “We basically go anywhere we are requested, regardless of the size of the crowd,” Fialo said. “We like to be out and about with the citizens, and the visibility is good for recruitment.”

There are other roles volunteers can fill without having to run calls, Fialo said, such as serving as administrative members or helping with the fundraising and public education events.

Breakfast with Santa is an annual fundraiser for the Louisa County Rescue Squad. Community members have the opportunity to tour the building, view the equipment, and enjoy a home-cooked breakfast while the children get to tell Santa their secret wishes and have pictures taken with him and Mrs. Claus.

Junior programs for 14 to 18-year-olds are another good outreach to get the younger generation interested in volunteering and keep them when they become 18 and can be released to run calls. Fialo explained that Holly Grove Rescue has the most active Junior program currently, but he is working to re-energize the Louisa Juniors.

“It’s a good way to get them in, let them see what goes on in a volunteer organization, and begin to introduce them to some of the training they will need,” he added. “It’s also a great way to begin building rapport with the kids and letting them find mentors who will be there when they turn 18. We also have some students who are taking the classes at the high school who need an organization to join and learn more.”

Fialo sees many benefits to the combination system in Louisa County where volunteers and career staff work side by side, as well as the cooperation with the other volunteer departments.

“Having career fire and EMS personnel on duty 24/7 is comforting to the volunteers who must work to know that while they are providing for their families, someone is ready to respond in an emergency,” he said. “It gives us a peace of mind to know that our families, parents, grandparents, neighbors, whoever it might be are protected. It also adds to the desire for us to give back when we can to help the career staff out.”

Fialo believes the blended model works well in Louisa County and that both sides respect and appreciate each other. He said it’s really just one big family regardless of the status – career or volunteer.

Thomas Jefferson Elementary School is one of the facilities members of the squad visit to talk about safety topics, as well as let the students experience the inside of the squad in a safe environment. Often, these visits result in thank you notes or letters of appreciation from the classes.

Interested in becoming a volunteer?  You can reach out directly to Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad through its social media platforms for more information or an application. If Louisa County Volunteer Rescue Squad isn’t in your district, then you can reach out to the other volunteer squads. You can also contact the Louisa County Department of Fire and EMS for a generic application, and they will assist you in connecting with the right department.

A fun part of any rescue and fire department is attending various parades, both in the county and around the state. The opportunity to show off the units and the skills of the members as well as networking with other departments provides ideas for improvement and advancement as well as the chance to win some pretty fancy hardware to display in the buildings.