- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

Little Rod, 16, likes to save lives.

Like his father and his grandfather before him, Rodney Woodward Jr. spends his free time awaiting the siren blast from Marshall Volunteer Fire Department Station 3 that might summon

him to fight a fire or rescue someone in trouble. It's an avocation Rodney, whose nickname is Little Rod, takes seriously. He loves it, he says.

"It's fun," the teen says. "It's the family trade. It's in the blood."

There are about 777,000 volunteer fighters across the country, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit organization based in the District. This service is an honor, an obligation. It's a calling that can reverberate through the generations, filling volunteer departments with legacies of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.

"It's in the blood," says Tom Marable, assistant fire chief at Station 3. Chief Marable, who works as a land-development manager, says his own young sons thrill to the rumble of the fire engines. "There's no doubt about that. With a lot of these people we have, it's been through the generations as far as giving back to the community. A lot of it has to do with people bringing their sons up in the fire department to take their spot so they can then take a back seat to them."

Drive straight out Route 66 to reach the town of Marshall, Va. Its gentle green slopes and limpid Main Street are a nudge back to the simpler life. It's a place where out-of-towners receive curious glances and the fire department with no mayor to complicate the tenor of the community enjoys historical and social significance.

Many Marshall residents have been here or in nearby towns such as Vint Hill, Delaplane and Sperryville all of their lives. Family trees frequently show branches of volunteer firefighters.

One-third of Station 3's 30 active members are legacies. They include the Soapers, the Lanes, the Nalls, the Simpsons and the Woodwards.

Eighty-two-year-old Archie Woodward fights fires only in his mind these days his body is damaged by a stroke he suffered several years ago. A Marshall native, World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient, Mr. Woodward was an early member of Station 3.

"I know I was in it," he says, resting in a comfy chair in the home he shares with his wife, son and grandson. "That's all I remember."

His wife, Ann Woodward, 64, remembers it well.

"After we were first married, he went to a fire, and two little girls died," Mrs. Woodward says. "He was so upset. They were under the bed. He said that's always where children go under the bed."

"I know there was a lot of fires 'cause we were the only firefighters around," Mr. Woodward says, scratching the ears of a cat who has jumped up on his lap.

"I think you might remember making money [for the department] with all those ham-and-oyster suppers," his wife gently prods.

"I've been sleeping all day, and my brain ," Mr. Woodward's voice trails off as he strokes the large, plump spaniel named Randy. "But it's in the blood, I guess."

"Archie trained a lot of 'em," Mrs. Woodward says. "Guys like Rodney. And Eddie Payne, who's the fire chief now. Rodney was an intense firefighter, weren't you, Rodney?"

"Still am," her eldest son replies.

Rodney Woodward Sr., 42, spends his days raising his son, Little Rod, and helping his mother manage his father's care. Those responsibilities are sandwiched between a paid position as a career firefighter for Fairfax County and active membership in the Marshall VFD.

The brawny man says he began hanging around the Marshall firehouse as a child, joining the department at age 11.

"I couldn't do anything but wash the equipment and wax the trucks," he says, "but back then, you could run calls when you were 13. Basically, all you ran back then was brush fires in the summertime and chimney fires in the winter. [My] first year, we didn't run but 42 calls."

Now the Marshall VFD averages 500 calls a year, responding to all manner of complaints, from automobile accidents, hazardous-material spills and structure fires to flooded basements, Chief Marable says. The calls come during the workday and during Little League games, weddings and funerals. They come in the deepest, coldest part of the night.

'We think it's pretty noble'

When a Fauquier County resident dials 911, the request automatically is routed to a call center in Warrenton. A dispatcher types in the information, setting codes that activate the pagers and alarm for the nearest station the fire station with "first due." Responders race to the fire station, start up the trucks, don their protective gear and take off. Sometimes they report directly to the scene.

About 30 minutes after a call has been completed, the volunteers' time still is ticking on the free clock as they top off the tanker with water, perhaps drained from nearby ponds; refuel the trucks; and clean up their gear and equipment. A call that pulls a firefighter from his or her bed at the stroke of midnight might not release the volunteer until the next morning just in time to start his or her paid workday.

"These people are giving of themselves for no compensation," says Craig Sharman, a spokesman for the National Volunteer Fire Council. "Many times they're risking their lives. We think it's pretty noble."

It's also a widespread practice across the nation, Mr. Sharman says. A vast majority of the country still is protected by volunteer fire departments or some combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.

"As urban sprawl continues and areas that were rural are starting to have bigger populations, you're starting to see a lot more of the combination systems," he says. "But still, 75 percent of all firefighters are volunteer, and about 90 percent of communities have volunteer fire departments."

However, the number of volunteer firefighters has sunk 5 percent to 10 percent since 1983. The NVFC blames the decline on escalating demands, such as increased emergency calls and training hours, more rigorous training standards and more two-income households, which don't leave much time for this sort of extreme volunteerism.

Something about the job has kept Fire Chief Eddie Payne interested for 26 years, though. Chief Payne, 44, a warm, gracious man with a shock of gray hair and a rust-colored moustache, has been the elected chief for several years.

His chores between running calls revolve around a monthly officers meeting, a monthly membership meeting, a monthly drill and "lots of paperwork, including keeping up with the insurance. We document everything we do because of liability, so it never ends," he says.

Chief Payne, who was raised in Marshall and is a former paid firefighter for Arlington County, runs his own trucking business, hauling sand, gravel and dirt for the big horse farms in Loudoun and Fauquier counties. He has a child, a 12-year-old boy named Collin who lives with his mother in South Bend, Ind. Collin spends summers in Marshall with Chief Payne.

"He loves to go to the firehouse, loves to work around the equipment," says Chief Payne, whose girlfriend, Marcia, is a dispatcher. "He wants to be a firefighter. He's got the fire department in his blood."

Chief Payne recalls his own youth, learning the ropes at the fire station.

"When I was coming up, Archie [Woodward] was the captain, and he was training me," he says. "That was in 1976. He was really into firefighting, loved the fire department. He had a lot of experience and always shared that with younger firefighters. He was great."

Chief Payne is trying to do the same now, sharing his knowledge and good will with the younger members straggling in. One of those is Trey Simpson, a third-generation volunteer and also a 10th-grader at Fauquier High School in Marshall, just like Little Rod.

"Your crew comes first before anything," says Trey, 16, lounging around a table one evening in the fire station's locker room. "I still am young and am just learning, but I still know a lot of the stuff that they know. But you have to respect the older people because they have more years, and sometimes they know what they're talking about."

Trey's father, 37-year-old Clyde Simpson Jr., or Ray, as he's known in Marshall, says he has been bringing his son around the fire station since the boy was born. Mr. Simpson's younger son, Adam, will join the fire station as a junior member in August, when he turns 14.

Mr. Simpson owns a heating and air-conditioning business in town. He also is the fire station's treasurer. It's tough patching together the average monthly operating budget of $9,000 from county funds; donations that trickle in; and proceeds from the annual firefighters carnival, the church strawberry festival and the gun raffle.

Trey's grandfather Clyde R. Simpson Sr., 58, was a volunteer firefighter for at least 25 years before he retired to Florida.

The Simpsons' volunteer history reads like a pedigree: Ray's wife, Tammy, is the president of the Marshall VFD Ladies Auxiliary. Her grandfather founded the Upperville Volunteer Fire Department, 15 miles to the north. Her brother is the chief there; his wife is the president. Her father is the secretary; her mother is the treasurer.

Marshall VFD member Larry Nalls, 48, says a family connection a brother-in-law brought him into the firehouse about 14 years ago. He brought his only son there. Capt. Allen Nalls, now 23, is one of the more active members.

The two are together at the fire station, and they're together at work taking care of cattle on a 500-acre farm on the outskirts of Marshall. Mr. Nalls says the property is owned by a wealthy family whose name he prefers not to reveal.

He smiles when he speaks of the fire department. He has been through a lot there, he says. He hates bad wrecks and has been fortunate not to see too many of them.

"But we did have four drownings at one time in '94," he says. "Allen was 15 and doing CPR on one of the kids."

"I'd had CPR in junior high," says Capt. Nalls, a young dad himself. "We heard the call and went straight to the pond. All four were pulled out real quick. It was three kids and one adult. I jumped in and did what I was taught to do."

After it was all over, Capt. Nalls says, he and his father returned to the farm to the cows and their gangly calves, the honeysuckle and the clover.

"It was during our lunch break, so we went back to work," Capt. Nalls says. "But for a long time, it seemed like a day didn't go by that I didn't think of it. It seemed like it bothered the older people more that those kids had died. But I never had any second thoughts about what I was doing."

Capt. Nalls ran 374 calls in 1998, the most run by any volunteer in Marshall that year.

"You get the adrenaline rush," he says. "You are also helping people. I kinda feel obligated. And it's kinda in your blood."

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