Sunday, 27 September 2015

Honoring the Firefighters in Our Family, Past and Present

(Author’s note for Worldwide Genealogical Collaboration Blog readers: Although we usually write about our ancestors in genealogical blogs, when I began thinking of occupations and professions lately, I realized I wanted to know not only about people in our past, but current, living family members who held similar occupations. Using some of the occupational record hints that Sue Scot shared with us in her post Sept. 8, 2015, “Occupational records”, and newspaper archives especially, I was able to glean career information about ancestors and of course able to directly interview living family members. I have found this mixture to be extremely interesting and informative for myself and other family members. I had started in September highlighting educators as schools all over the world reconvened. Moving on to other professions, the firefighters in our family were front and center considering all of the wildfires being fought currently in the USA which are threatening so many people and have destroyed so many homes. I hope you will enjoy this story, but I wanted you to know there was a design, a rhyme and reason behind this approach, the mixture of the living and the ancestors as well.)

The image above is so very true! No one and nothing is a more thankful sight than a firefighter and his engine or truck pulling up to save you, your family, and or your home when fire strikes! We usually concentrate on our own fear, then thankfulness, and relief, as we watch these brave men and women risk their very lives saving ours! Only afterwards, or if we have family members who are firefighters, do most of us truly embrace the sacrifice and courage, the dedication it takes to always put others' lives before your own as you fight such danger as fire! With that in mind, I wanted to embrace the firefighters in our family, past and present, whom I could identify. 

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I knew that I had a Great Grand Uncle who had been with the City of Richmond Fire Department for over fifty years! His name was John Francis Raffo, 1867-1951, I was two years old when he died. I really didn’t know much more than that, except that his parents were both born in Genoa, Italy, a fact which always intrigued me as the Italian branch of our family! I very much wanted to know more. From GenealogyBank, I was able to find an archive of his obituary which got me started on my search for more information. I learned that he joined the Fire Department of Richmond, Virginia in 1886, and on Feb. 1, 1919 became a Battalion Chief. On July 1, 1937, he was appointed Assistant Chief for the whole City of Richmond Fire Department. I found several articles describing his valour and heroism as he and the other firefighters worked to save lives and property day in and day out! I am very proud of him and he honors our family history with his great work.
"Flames in Midtown Richmond, Virginia witnessed by Thousands", August 6, 1937, Richmond Times Dispatch, from Genealogybank

John was married and had eight children. His son Nicolas Raffo served as a firefighter in Richmond, Va. and rose to Captain, as well as several of his nephews. This branch of my family was full of policemen and firefighters, and mainly Irish and Italian. A very interesting combination that worked well for us to other people’s apparent amazement. 

 One of my second cousins, Pat Nichols of northern Virginia, served as a firefighter most of his career, retiring as the Captain of a Quantico, Virginia Fire Station in 1999 with 25 years as a firefighter under his belt. Pat and I were friends as well as cousins as children. We have been blessed to renew our friendship as adults, reconnecting through a family reunion. Pat talks often about trips to the fire stations in Richmond,Virginia where his Grandfathers Frank Nichols and William Scroggins took him when he was a child. I can tell what a major influence that was on the future of the little boy they were educating and inspiring. He even recounts that in high school at one time, his baseball coach, football coach, homeroom teacher, and his guidance counselor were all volunteer firefighters as well! Pat also talks about his other mentors along the way, like the Chief of Fairfax County, Virginia who went on to serve through the National Fire Academy, and another who became the Chief of the Virginia Beach Fire Department until he retired. These men obviously influenced Pat and his career choices.

In 1968 he volunteered at his first fire station, but got drafted for the army about the same time. He was able to join a Petroleum Fires Training School. Pat recalls one incident when he was home in Virginia on a 3-day leave from his Army post in Savannah, Georgia. He was visiting the firehouse, Dunn Loring Station in Fairfax County,Virginia, where he was a volunteer, when they got a fire call. First reported as a brush fire, they were soon called in as the fire was “over the treetops” at the now famous, but then under construction, Wolf Trap Amphitheater,  part of a large performing arts center in Vienna, Virginia. They had been told the fire hydrants had been inspected and passed just that very day, but when they arrived, the water had been turned off and they had to use three miles of hose to attach to hydrants at a housing development three miles away! That meant losing precious minutes in fighting the fire, it also meant three miles of hose to clean afterwards! Tanker trucks from Dulles Airport were called in to supplement the supplies. Pat tells us that "at one point they had a "master stream" in the balcony flowing 500 gallons per minute on the proscenium." Wow!
  Of his three day leave, one whole day was spent travelling, or half of two days, one whole 24 hour period was spent fighting this fire, which left very little R&R (rest and recuperation) time for this weary soldier. 

However, when he got out of the Army, Pat chose to become a professional firefighter, and joined the Herndon Station in Fairfax first. Pat remembers vividly when a 25 story high rise building under construction collapsed and they spent a week searching for survivors! I think most of us cannot imagine this kind of work unless you have taken part. Dangerous, daring, and not for the faint of heart.

Pat worked at a fire station in Quantico, Virginia for most of his career. He became their Captain, and although he had the opportunity to be promoted to Chief more than once, he wanted to serve actively, not to be an administrator, so he chose to remain a Captain for over fifteen years until retirement. This picture shows his Battalion in 1979 in Quantico.

Pat Nichols, Captain, third from left in front row, Security Battalion MCB Quantico, Virginia, Station 531, in front of their 1979 Seagrave Ladder Truck.

You can well imagine that you don’t serve as a giving firefighter all of your working life and retire to do nothing. Pat’s wife, Dianne Tate Nichols, was an EMT on ambulances. Soon Pat was also. He rode on the ambulance, drove, and served. Later he and Dianne both served on the Board of Directors for the Dumfries Triangle Rescue Squad for years, Dianne as the Chairman. This is another family, another man, another woman who honor our family history with their work, with their courage, and their service to mankind. Thank you Pat and Dianne, and John and Nicolas Raffo for your service, your courage, and sharing your skills to help all of us!

If you have a firefighter in your family, feel free to leave a note about them in the comments section of this blog post, it's one small way to honor our loved ones who sacrifice so much for us. Until we meet again, wishing you the very best, Helen


  1. Thank you, Helen, for the mention. I am pleased that my September post on Occupational Records has proved helpful.

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed your post Sue, and it got me thinking along this line! Thank you so much!


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