It is a seven hour drive from Newport News to Clintwood, VA. The drive is full of beautiful views and winding roads. You pass through a lot of small towns as you make your way across the state. If you are unfamiliar with Virginia's geography, the coastal Hampton Roads region is very different than the mountainous western part of the state.
As the scenery gradually changed from bridges and rivers to rocky ridges, I began to think about the weekend ahead. I had no idea what to expect from this little town in Dickenson County. Everything I knew, I learned from Wikipedia and Clintwood's department website.
Clintwood is the county seat of Dickenson County, a small town of about 1300 people with a rich history in the coal industry. It's the kind of small town you hear about in country songs, where the whole town gathers every Friday night to cheer on the high school football team (GO GREEN WAVE!).
I’m a city guy. I grew up in mainly urban areas in the northeast and always wanted to work for a city fire department. This picturesque mountain town was something I had only seen in movies. When we rolled into Clintwood I was nervous, unsure of how we would be received. My fears were quelled as a group of hardworking firefighters welcomed us with open arms.
As I looked out of the hotel window later that evening, I began to think. I've always associated big cities with the fire department, but there are many more small towns like Clintwood than there are large metropolises like Chicago or New York. These small towns are not just the heart of America; they are the heart of the fire service.
Clintwood's department is staffed entirely by volunteers, most of whom have careers unassociated with the fire service. They work in the mines or at the penitentiary right outside town limits. Their time is spread thin between family, work, and volunteering. Residents have strong ties to the community. It's one of those places where everybody knows your name. Every call the department runs may involve friends or family. When they get on scene, firefighters are greeted by someone they know, a friend or neighbor who is having the worst day of their life. How many of us have to bear the burden of every call becoming personal? Firefighting is not just a job or hobby to them. They don't make it complcated. They don't play politics with extinguishment techniques. They simply go and put the fire out. They have a culture of aggressive firefighting that is not based on science, false bravado or hubris. It's based on tried and true tactics and a desire to be the last line of defense between fire and their town. They have a deep understanding of the consequences of the event because it's not just business, it's personal. They do not have the luxury of being able to detach themselves from the incident. They know a neighbor, a friend, or a family member may be trapped so they make every reasonable effort to go in and save them. They also know that saving property matters. These houses were built by great grandaddies and made homes by great grandmamas, passed down through the generations. The story of their lives are told through houses and land, memories imprinted on wooden planks and rooted in fertile soil. Those memories can not be replaced by the insurance company.
The next two days were filled with hoselines, water, and brotherhood. We were shown the kind of hospitality you might expect from a small southern town. We cannot thank them enough; it was one of our best classes to date, not because we made an impact on their department but because they made an impact on us. They taught us to value those motivated by service to their communities. They symbolize the true spirit of the fire service. I'm going to miss Clintwood and their exceptional firefighters, but I look forward to working with small towns all over this country, the heart of the American fire service.