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Finding Fun at the Firehouse

Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department dedicates new ambulance and gives equipment demonstrations at Open House.

The Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department dedicated its new ambulance on Saturday, Oct. 14, to the department's oldest living member, Milburn Sanders. Ironically, Sanders had never advocated purchasing the ambulance in the first place.

"In 1987 we had two ambulances and we never got use of the second one because we were always loaning it out to other departments who needed it," said Sanders, 84. "Now, if someone needs it more than we do they shouldn't be denied, but since we never got to use the second one when we had two before, I didn't think we should buy this one … but I hope I'm wrong."

Born and raised in Great Falls, Sanders joined the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department on May 11, 1942 when he was 20 years old. He was six days shy of being classified as a founding member of the fire department.

"I was riding in ambulances before CPR was even heard of," said Sanders.

Sanders has not been an active duty volunteer since 1978, but is a life member of the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department. Sanders said he has seen many changes in firefighting techniques over the years.

"We went into buildings without masks and ate smoke and did a lot of things we wouldn't have done if we'd been trained properly," he said.

THE NEW $155,000 ambulance was dedicated to Sanders during the Great Falls Fire Department's Open House event which featured equipment displays and fire fighting demonstrations.

"We have a safety video and a smoke room where the kids can crawl around on the floor and see what it would be like to be in a smoke-filled bedroom," said Cristine Ruzila, president of the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department. "We also have a lot of cool firefighting toys, like one where kids can put their hands up to the glass and see the imprint from the heat."

Children had the opportunity to climb in the ambulances and trucks, and were also treated to a special demonstration of how firefighters take apart cars in order to safely remove passengers from the wreckage of an accident.

"In a car accident, sometimes the doors get jammed," said technician Rony Avalos. "You can avoid causing spinal column and head injuries by taking the car apart to gain access to the victim … sometimes it can take half an hour to get to them."

Using special saws and hydraulic tools, firefighter Keith Baughan and technician Keith Lindley systematically dismantled an old donated Toyota 2-door for a rapt audience.

"The passengers don't see anything because they put a blanket over them to protect them from the shattered glass and debris, but they can hear all those loud noises," said Avalos.

Firefighter Justin Green gave the blow-by-blow as Baughan and Lindley peeled off the doors and roof of the car. Green noted that firefighters must be wary of inadvertently triggering vehicle safety mechanisms such as side door airbags.

"In the movies the gas tanks of cars are always exploding, but in real life it's the little things like the tires and the headlight bulbs," said Green. "The most important thing is that we want to get the passengers out and on to a backboard without moving their head and their back … we can usually tell pretty quickly how injured people are."

TODAY the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department is hoping that the long-awaited and much needed replacement of its firehouse will finally become a reality. The building, located on Georgetown Pike in the heart of Great Falls, is the oldest firehouse in the country – at 7,000 square feet, it is also the smallest.

"Seven people live here 24 hours a day, seven days a week with all of the equipment," said Steve Ruzila, chief of the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department, and husband of Cristine Ruzila. "We don't even have space for our new ambulance — we're going to have to park it in an equipment tent out back."

In addition to being cramped, the firehouse also uses pump and haul to dispose of its water waste due to its failed septic system. Ruzila estimates that the department does pump and haul three to four times a week at the cost of $2-3000 per month.

"Six to seven guys share two bathrooms," said Ruzila. "There also aren't adequate facilities for female firefighters because there weren't any women firemen when this station was built, so that's discouraged women from volunteering for our department."

The department has been working to raise money for construction of a new firehouse for years, but the $7 million required for the project never seemed within the realm of possibility. Subsequently, the department made the decision to turn over its property deed to Fairfax County.

"The best solution for everybody was a joint solution between us and Fairfax County," said Ruzila.

Next month's voting ballots will include a public safety facilities bond referendum that seeks to allot $125 million for the construction, reconstruction, enlargement, renovation and equipment of various public safety facilities — with the construction of a new Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department being one of the top priority projects on the list. If voters approve the referendum, the current firehouse will be demolished and a new and improved 10,000-square-foot, 2-level station will be built in its place.

"The bond will pay for construction of the building … and we will pay for part of the building with the money that we have already raised," said Ruzila.

The pump and haul system will stay in place until the fire department is able to come up with an alternate septic system solution.