HOTSEAT- Checkers speech: Chief crushes bored-board myths

Think volunteer firefighters are an endangered species? Well, Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston disagrees– and he's in the hot seat (sorry, we couldn't resist) to recruit and retain the county's volunteer force.

"In the last 15 years, the number of volunteers has increased here while nationwide it's decreased," says Eggleston, who heads up the county's 500-volunteer, 75-paid fire and rescue services staffs. "I think they'll be around for years to come."

 Volunteers are enticed with a free fitness center at every fire station, and even free room and board are planned at the county's newest station near Hollymead, which will have four separate dorm rooms.

Eggleston himself started out as a volunteer in 1978 in Chesterfield, where his father was a charter member and chief of a fire department. He graduated from college with a business degree, but chose the adrenaline-charged rescue route rather than a desk job– although he admits the business degree comes in handy with the administrative aspects of his job.

He's a chief who gets his hands dirty. When the Qroe Farm developers' plane went down in North Garden June 14, he was there. "It goes to gaining respect and maintaining respect," he says. "I don't want anybody to perceive me as disconnected."

The firefighting business has changed since he first answered a call in 1978. "The biggest thing is we're more of an all-hazard department," he explains. "It could be fire, [emergency medical service], or hazardous materials."

Eggleston recently interviewed 12 applicants for nine positions, and all had college degrees. "Fire service is becoming more of a profession than a trade," he says.

In the 21st century, terrorism is a factor, even in Albemarle, where in just the last couple of years a man was arrested with bomb-making materials in his home, and a bulldozer burning allegedly was committed by the Earth Liberation Front. "You didn't see that 20 years ago," says Eggleston.

As Albemarle County has gone from a rural to more urbanized, full-time firefighters have been hired. And the county pays the basic budgets of the volunteer-staffed stations so firefighters can concentrate on responding to emergencies and training rather than planning pancake suppers to raise money.

Melding volunteer and professional, and fire and rescue units– Albemarle has three separate rescue squads– is an ongoing challenge. "There's friction," Eggleston concedes. "It's our method to harness those differences." 

So while Crozet and, say, North Garden will remain independent and community-based stations, Eggleston strives to make a unified system as well. "We want to be a model for combination full-time and volunteer," he says.

Eggleston credits his managerial acumen to working with his father. "I learned good, ethical behavior, and he taught me how to treat people and how to help the community," he says.

Firefighters have the most public trust of any profession, Eggleston says, and that's a responsibility he and the 575 members of the county fire and rescue take seriously. 

"When people call, they're often having the worst day of their lives," he points out. And if giving aid means finding a place for out-of-town relatives of victims to stay, or waiting at an accident site until family members arrive at midnight, "That's what we do," says the chief.

 He dashes one popular myth about firefighters and EMS providers: that they're just sitting around playing checkers waiting for something to happen. Prevention is a key aspect of the job, as is keeping skills current. 

"They're in school throughout their entire careers," Eggleston says. "There's a lot of work to do when they're not responding. The image of playing checkers— there's not many places I've ever seen that."

One firefighter stereotype is true: they eat well. While chili and soup are still staples, according to Eggleston, firehouse cuisine has gotten lighter, more gourmet, and more health conscious.

But there's always ice cream. "Firefighters live off ice cream," he says. 

Age: 44

Why here? I moved to Albemarle in 2002 to accept the job as fire rescue chief.

What's worst about living here? As a community, it seems that we are averse to change.

Favorite hangout? Duner's

Most overrated virtue? Obedience

People would be surprised to know: I have a life outside of fire rescue.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be lighter and faster.

Proudest accomplishment? Having little regret about the decisions I've made in my life 

People find most annoying about you: My analogies 

Whom do you admire? Colin Powell  

Favorite book? Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Subject that causes you to rant? Lack of personal accountability. Why is it always someone else's fault?

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Advances in medicine and technology

Biggest 21st-century creep out? It troubles me to think that we are quickly losing our privacy.

What do you drive? 1998 Ford Explorer

In your car CD player right now: U2: All That You Can't Leave Behind

Next journey? Hiking and cycling in the New River Gorge area followed by a hiking trip at the Grand Canyon this fall

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Let's just say the event was related to poor judgment as a teenager. That's all I'll admit. 

Regret: Selling my Compaq Computer stock in 1985 to buy a car 

Favorite comfort food: Ice cream with chocolate chunks

Always in your refrigerator: Something green

Must-see TV: The Sopranos 

Favorite cartoon: Family Guy

Describe a perfect day. No emails, no phone calls, no projects. Just an all day hiking or mountain bike trip followed by catered dinner outside with family and friends

Walter Mitty fantasy: Being a crew member aboard the space shuttle on a mission to the International Space Station. If anybody out there can make this happen, please give me a call. 

Who'd play you in the movie? A younger Steve Martin

Most embarrassing moment? Trying to back out of a $2,000 art purchase once I realized that I had misread the price tag

Best advice you ever got? Life is full of ups and downs. Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.

Favorite bumper sticker? "Fight for Your Right to Arm Bears" 

Dan Eggleston