Rubin, a business management major, knew the call could take many hours to resolve— and that he had a full day of Monday classes ahead—but he didn’t hesitate for a moment when it came. He was one of eight volunteers—all but one of them Longwood students—who responded and were on the scene of the fire in less than seven minutes.“ We’ve got a very strong volunteer base, and we always get a good response from our college students,” said Rubin, a second lieutenant who spends an average of 35 to 40 hours each week at the station. “We want to help other people, and that’s the main reason we have a volunteer department that’s thriving and strong.”
As the Farmville Fire Department formally celebrates its 150th anniversary this spring, it is Longwood students and alumni who make up the core of active volunteers and run the majority of calls. Of the 38 volunteer members on the roster, 12 are current students and seven are Longwood alumni.
This active and loyal volunteer base—the majority of whom live within a half-mile of the fire station—allows the department to log response times on par with much larger fire departments with paid personnel.
“Essentially we are a professional volunteer fire department,” said Chief Cayden Eagles ’16, who was promoted from assistant chief to head the department late last year. “Students can be here in a matter of moments from the top of the hill.”
The symbiotic relationship allows Longwood students— many of whom, like Eagles and Rubin, are pursuing or plan to pursue careers as professional firefighters—to get critical experience and training while serving as citizen leaders in the Farmville community. Meanwhile, the town is able to maintain a professional-level volunteer department at a time when finances are tight and many rural localities are struggling to replenish their ranks with younger volunteers.
“Without Longwood’s help, Farmville would have probably have had to go to a paid fire department by this time because of the demand and the need,” said Darrell Hodges ’07, a lifetime member of the department and Cumberland County sheriff. “It would have been a bigger burden on the taxpayers."
Giving back to the community is something that is embedded in these students for the rest of their lives.Darrell Hodges ’07 Tweet This
A great partnership
Prior to the early 2000s it was a requirement that volunteers had to be full-time residents of the town of Farmville. However, a major event on Longwood’s campus 20 years ago this month paved the way for student participation and the leading role students and alumni have come to play.
On April 24, 2001, a catastrophic fire in Longwood’s historic Rotunda raged for 37 hours and required the assistance of 181 firefighters from Farmville and surrounding localities. After the fire, the community realized more personnel were needed, and the department voted to allow students to join.
Eagles, who is employed as a professional firefighter in Hanover County, is the second Longwood alum to serve as chief of the department. He has witnessed firsthand the parallel growth in student participation and call volume since he first joined in 2014.
The department now averages between 1,200 and 1,400 calls per year, compared with 600 to 800 a year when Eagles was a student. Despite the increase in volume, the department has cut its response time in half over the past five years, Eagles said, giving much of the credit to student volunteers.
“It was probably one of the best things we ever did,” Hodges said of the decision to add students to the ranks. “We have an abundance of enthusiasm and energy with these students. You can come down here any night of the week, and you’ll see cars parked here. Almost all of them belong to Longwood students.”
Founded in 1870, the department postponed until this year the official celebration of its 150th anniversary due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At press time, a community parade was planned for April 18.
The strong community partnership between the two entities reaches back at least 50 years into that history, when the university was instrumental in helping the department purchase a custom-built ladder-tower truck in 1978. State-ofthe- art for its time, it had a hydraulically operated 85-foot ladder and was purchased with state funds at the request of Longwood, primarily to help protect the students living in the relatively new twin high-rise residence halls.
In 2005, the university donated $100,000 toward the department’s purchase of a new truck with a 105-foot aerial ladder. That truck is still in use today.
“Longwood has always been a great partner with the volunteer fire department by helping us in getting the equipment we need to better serve this community,” Hodges said.
A calling to serve others
Helping and serving others is the primary reason students and alumni give when asked why they volunteer with the fire department. For students, volunteering provides a stronger connection with the Farmville community.
“A lot of students just know campus and Main Street downtown, whereas we know every street and every neighborhood in the county,” said Brian Seimetz ’20, who is finishing his EMT certification this spring and preparing to apply to become a full-time firefighter. “We get to make connections within the community beyond the campus.”
There are also times when student life intersects with their community involvement.
Eagles was the first arriving officer on the scene in August 2016 when there was an attic fire caused by lightning at the Longwood Landings student housing complex.
“I had just graduated, and I knew people living in that building,” he recalled. “It was very nerve-wracking seeing the volume of fire coming from the roof. But it ended up being a great stop, and thankfully no one was injured.”
Riley Hayden ’21 joined the Farmville Fire Department her sophomore year and spends roughly two to four hours per day at the fire station. And if a call alert pops up on her phone when she’s between classes, she’ll drive to the scene to see if she can assist.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to have confidence in myself,” she said. “In this line of work, you have to put your all into everything you do to keep each other safe.” Hayden, a liberal studies major with a minor in children’s literature, is preparing to become a teacher after she graduates in May. She’s also planning to remain active as a volunteer in her hometown fire department.
“Giving back to the community is something that is embedded in these students for the rest of their lives,” Hodges said. “I don’t know a single student who is involved in the department here where they don’t go on and continue volunteering wherever they end up.”