- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

CONCORD, Va. (AP) - Of the 56 years the Concord Volunteer Fire Department has assisted in emergency situations in the area, Burnette Smith has volunteered for 50.

Smith, 76, started at the department in 1966, soon after it was established in 1961. At the time, he said, the station had 12 to 15 members - many of them farmers - compared to more than 40 volunteers there today.

“I think that’s the reason all of us joined; we knew somebody, somebody talked us into joining the department (to) help the community out,” he said.

He’s still an active fireman at the station, taking day shifts with other retired volunteers while many of the volunteers are at work.

“We call it the young man’s fire department at nighttime and the old man’s fire department during the day,” he said laughingly.

Station Chief Claude Owen said that out of 217 calls over an 11-month period in 2016, Smith ran 63.

Smith said that when he started, he’d clock a response time at five to 10 minutes. Concord firefighters now can arrive at a scene within or just over a minute.

Quicker response time is one of many things that have changed in volunteer firefighting over the 50 years Smith has been at it.

When he joined the department, 911 call centers hadn’t been established and one person took the fire department’s calls during the week, with a telephone chain set up for calls coming in over the weekend. A fire siren sat on top of the station and firefighters never used self-contained breathing apparatus - safety equipment that’s now required as protocol.

“The whole method of firefighting has changed drastically over the years,” Owen said.

“Fire behavior is something you study too,” Smith added. “It used to be, you get in the truck and you put water on the fire. That was it, you know - you didn’t think about your turnout gear, anything like that.

“Ain’t no tellin’ what we’ve breathed over the years. Now it’s all changed; you’ve got your full turnout gear you put on.”

The station’s only apparatus when Smith joined was a converted oil tanker used to put out fires. Now, Concord firefighters use nine total pieces of apparatus.

“That’s one thing that’s changed over the years: I don’t know anything about a computer; I’m from the old country,” Smith said. “You’re lucky I learned how to use the telephone.”

While serving the station as chief from 1994 to 1995, Smith said he encouraged the volunteers to keep safe and responsible when responding to an incident, not risking their own safety in the process.

“If you satisfy half the men half the time, you’re doing 100 percent,” he said.

Smith has the same words of advice for new and prospective volunteers, who he said are in for an educational and fulfilling experience.

“Take your time getting to the fire if you’re going to drive. Be safe,” he said. “If there’s a whole lot of fire, there’ll be a fire for you to fight when you get there. If there’s not much fire, they’ll have it out by the time you get there.”

Gerald Inge, who started volunteering at the Concord station just a year after Smith joined, echoed the notion of that fulfilling experience.

“You’ve got to want to do it,” he said. “You’ve got to have it in your heart to be a firefighter, and Burnette’s got that.”

Owen, current fire chief, said he gave his first 50-year service pin to Smith at a station dinner in December. Smith also received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the time.

Within the fire department, Owen said Smith’s fellows are appreciative of his service and fundraising efforts. Smith, Owen said, has always been the one to “pass the hat around” and collect donations from the department to go toward the Laurel Regional Program, which serves handicapped students from multiple counties and Lynchburg, and Trunk or Treat events around Halloween.

“(Smith) has a soft spot for children with disabilities,” Owen said.

Shortly after joining the department at the age of 26, Smith responded to his first house fire near the Mount Athos area. Later in his time volunteering, he recalled four or five houses nearby catching fire after an electrical surge.

“I think some of your toughest situations (are) when they call you to a scene and tell you to standby ‘til the police get there. . You know it’s going to be trouble,” he said. “We’ve had several of those and of course we stay back a safe distance.”

Before the Concord station, Inge said the Lynchburg Fire Department ran calls to the area, but that responsibility eventually proved to be a stretch. After some preparation work from the community, Concord VFD was formally established in 1961.

Through mutual aid agreements with other localities, Smith has seen Concord firefighters head out to incidents in Lynchburg and Appomattox, Buckingham and Nelson counties. In 2016, Smith said he’d sent some men to the tornado in Evergreen and the Dan River plant fire in Brookneal. The Appomattox pipeline incident in 2008 involved a member of Smith’s family.

“I guess we’ve seen our part of . cruel things that happen,” Smith said.

Along with the other Concord volunteers, Smith is still training once or twice a month. He said he’s always updating himself and always learning something.

“Firefighting is something that gets in your blood,” he said. “We’re all committed to the community here, we’re all committed to the fire department. We try to help our fellow man.”

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Information from: The News & Advance, https://www.newsadvance.com/

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