Capt. Ralph Monaco opens Little Fork Volunteer Fire Department’s front door and steps into the building’s office, where David Burrelli is manning the desk. If he leans back too far in his chair, Burrelli may knock his head against a brush truck that is parked inches away from the office.
As Ralph Monaco begins giving a tour of the building, it does not get any less cramped. He leads the way to the “living area,” which is a corner of the building along the back wall that includes two small couches, a television, microwave and refrigerator. His brother, Chief Doug Monaco, explains that the 40-by-80 building is more of a garage than a fire station.
“Imagine moving into your garage with no air conditioning and sparse heating for the most part,” Doug Monaco said.
Now, nearly 25 years after the station was constructed, the department is aiming to make the facility a more suitable home for the volunteers with a $3 million addition.
The building leaves plenty of room for improvements.
Ralph Monaco exits the living area and ventures down a small pathway between vehicles and the wall. He arrives at the sleeping quarters, which includes a bunk bed that is in the direct line of fire of a truck’s exhaust pipe.
“We actually do have some beds here, but you know the problem here? You’re in an area full of carcinogens called diesel exhaust,” Ralph Monaco said.
He added that the bunk bed is not of much help during snowstorms, when it is vital for the department to be heavily staffed, so air mattresses are lined up on the little available floor space and volunteers have even slept atop fire trucks.
Ralph Monaco points to the space in between fire trucks, noting that “there aren’t many fire stations like this, where you can’t get between the trucks.” He ducks underneath one of the truck’s rear end, rounds the corner and squeezes alongside a wall that contains racks of hoses.
Doug Monaco notes that it would not be a good idea to stand under the racks too long as they may tip over at any moment.
Luckily, the Culpeper Times received a tour of the station on a cool fall morning and not during the summer, when a lack of air conditioning has resulted in a record inside temperature of 103 degrees.
Then there’s the shed out back, where new members store their gear including helmets and jackets.
“It could be January, 10 degrees out, they’ve got to run back here and put this gear on. It’s just as bad in the summer too,” Doug Monaco said.
There is also nowhere for volunteers to clean up and wash their equipment after returning from a call.
“A lot of our members go home and they’ll strip on their back porch or take off their outer layer of clothing...and then go in and clean up,” Doug Monaco said.
Additionally, the building cannot hold all of the department’s vehicles as there are only four bays. Still, there are six vehicles inside, which means a fire engine must pull out of the building if the brush truck near the desk needs to exit.
Five vehicles are stored outside, which Doug Monaco explained presents another set of issues. For example, freezing temperatures can result in o-rings bursting when thousands of pounds of water pressure are applied. To top it off, hornets have been known to nest under equipment that parks outdoors.
Those problems would be solved with the addition, plans for which include bunk rooms, air conditioning, office space, equipment storage, new bays and more. The addition’s site plan has been approved while the building plan is being reviewed by county officials.
But the department needs help to make those plans come to fruition.
The brothers explained that the $3 million addition will require a downpayment of about $750,000. While the department has raised enough for that downpayment over the last seven years, estimated annual payments are $110,000.
Before signing a loan, Doug Monaco explained that the station’s board of directors must ensure that the department’s finances are in stable enough condition to do so.
This comes as the coronavirus pandemic has caused the department's annual fundraising to plummet by $30,000 this year.
Usually, the department raises about $70,000 annually, which does not fund major capital expenses such as construction projects.
“Our local people support us. We do have fundraisers and they support us but the bottom line is that mostly covers our operating expenses and some money towards equipment,” Ralph Monaco said.
While the brothers both made a point to acknowledge that the county’s other seven volunteer stations need certain upgrades, they agreed that Little Fork is the “most needy.”
Doug Monaco explained that the addition would upgrade the facility from a garage to a “spartan, bare bones fire house.”
The department initially had hopes of tearing down the current building and constructing a new $6 million station. That was simply impossible and the plans were scaled back to contain just the necessities.
“There’s nothing we could cut out of the plans and still remain comfortable,” he said.
The plans are in line with the department’s tradition of maintaining a minimal budget. For example, Doug Monaco noted the department purchases used trucks for significant discounts. These shoestring budgetary efforts have led to the department being free of outstanding debt.
Ideally, he said the department could continue being debt free and fund the construction with cash. That, however, is unlikely, and the brothers agreed it is simply time to improve the building.
Beyond having a proper amount of square footage, Ralph Monaco noted that the planned addition may help attract younger members who are vital to the department’s operations.
“Our members can start at 16-years-old,” he said. “Somebody that young would love to come up here and spend the night on a weekend. You would have a place for people who would want to stay and that really draws the younger crowd in.”
Doug Monaco added that those younger members are “important for us to stay in business.”
And protecting citizens is the business the station is in.
Doug Monaco noted that the county’s all-volunteer fire departments are a carryover from the tradition established by the Culpeper Minute Men who protected the community in the 1700s.
“When the bell rang at the church...they accumulated together and they went and protected the community, and that’s what we do,” he said. “We live it. Our kids are here, our families, brides, and we determine that level of service.”
At the end of the day, Ralph Monaco explained that Little Fork’s 80 volunteers signed on due to that sense of community service, as they certainly “don’t come here for this building we have.”
Still, it would be nice for them to have more space to move around.