By Betsy Cribb
Jimmy Swink is a new father, but a crying baby girl isn’t the only reason he has sleepless nights.
Swink, 34, is one of Lexington Fire Department’s 25 to 30 volunteer firefighters.
“Now that I do this, I don’t have a whole lot of other hobbies like I used to, like hunting and fishing,” Swink said. “But I enjoy doing it … When you get to help someone, you know, that makes you feel good.”
The volunteers who sleep at the station tend to get awakened all night long, said Fire Chief Ty Dickerson.
Dickerson isn’t exaggerating about the fire department’s high call volume. Eight to 10 calls come in daily, adding up to about 3,200 emergency calls per year.
Volunteers like Swink allow the fire department to respond to all of the calls that come in, Dickerson said.
“[Without volunteers], we wouldn’t have enough people to do our job,” the chief said.
From its establishment in 1796 until 2009, the Lexington Fire Department was operated entirely by volunteers. Now, the fire department has nine paid fire-rescue staff members. Most have been hired since September 2011.
Swink, a Lexington native, has volunteered with the fire department since 2001. He is now the first assistant chief, but remains an unpaid volunteer.
Swink also enjoys working with younger firefighters, some of whom are student volunteers from Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.
“Working with some of the younger people, not that I’m an old-timer, but it’s kind of neat to pass things down,” he said. “Teach, and train, and stuff like that.”
Firefighting is something that was passed down through the family.
“My dad was a fireman in the late 70s,” Swink said. “His uncle, which would be my great uncle, had been in the fire department in about the 1930s or 40s, so there’s kind of been a Swink in the fire department [since then].”
Swink said adding a paid staff has benefited the volunteers.
Many of the volunteers, like Swink, have other jobs that make it difficult to respond to daytime emergencies.
“It used to be every time a fire call would go off … I would pretty much have to go because you didn’t know who was here,” Swink said. “So now we have a career staff that kind of offsets that.”
While the paid fire-rescue staff offers some advantages, Swink said he realizes that having a predominantly volunteer fire department saves Lexington residents a lot of money.
“[Not having volunteers] would cause the tax rate in the city of Lexington and Rockbridge County to go up severely,” he said.
The volunteers’ commitment to serving their community is more valuable than the economic benefits, Dickerson said
“They have a passion for what they’re doing,” Dickerson said, “and out of those desires and those passions comes a dedication that we’d be hard-pressed to ever pay for.”