Volunteer fire departments connect with community through annual Santa Runs
by Laura Emery, Staff Writer
Santa Claus knows how to make an entrance.
Forget magical reindeer endowed with the gift of flight; jolly old Saint Nick gets escorted by local volunteer firefighters through many neighborhoods in December, as a sort of precursor to Christmas.
Families wait at the end of their driveways in the crisp, cool air of an early winter evening. They often have flashlights, hot chocolate and, if Santa and his heroic helpers are lucky, warm cookies in hand. The anticipation is palpable as fire truck sirens in the distance announce that Santa Claus is, indeed, on his way.
At the first sight of flashing and pulsing lights emerging through the darkness, young and old erupt into cheers of excitement. The rolling spectacle slowly makes its way through the neighborhood, bringing hope, happiness and holiday cheer.
Many volunteer fire stations, especially in rural communities, conduct these holiday community visits in their own unique way, and even have different names for it. For the districts in Powhatan, Va., served by Fine Creek Volunteer Fire Department and Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department, they’re called Santa Runs. And they’re an important, much-anticipated community-outreach event.
In fact, Michael Walker, president of Fine Creek Volunteer Fire Department, says they’ve become a holiday tradition for many local families.
Laura East, a resident in the district served by Fine Creek and a member of Southside Electric Cooperative, says, “The Santa Run is such a fun community experience that my kids and I look forward to every year. It’s a tradition that my kids will remember forever as part of the holiday season.”
Click here for more from local fire chiefs Michael Walker and Tim Lawson.
FOR A GOOD CLAUS
The Santa Runs provide volunteer firefighters the opportunity to get out into the communities that are in their district and engage with the people that they serve.
“We get to meet them on a day that’s not the worst day of their life,” says Walker, who is a Southside Electric Cooperative member.
“It helps us show the families and children in the neighborhood that there’s nothing to be afraid of when we come to help them, and that they can always rely on us,” explains David Milazzo, assistant chief at Fine Creek.
For 10-year-old Tessa East, the Santa Runs have become synonymous with the holidays. It also helps foster a sense of familiarity with and trust in those who may one day need to come to her aid. “It helps seeing fire trucks come to our street when nothing bad is happening. So when an emergency happens, I don’t feel as scared,” she says.
Nora Hurt, the 7-year-old daughter of Southside Electric Cooperative members and residents in the district served by Huguenot, says, “It is fun to hear the sirens and see the red lights coming down the street and waving to Santa. I like that I get to see Santa before Christmas because it makes me happy and excited for the holidays.”
Daniel DeHart, a Southside Electric Cooperative member, has been volunteering for Huguenot for five years. DeHart has fought fires and rescued kittens, but escorting Santa Claus through town is the highest honor for the father of two. “I became a volunteer so that I could give back to the community that gave so much to me. So to see that what we do impacts so many people, it’s an awesome feeling,” he says.
MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE
A lot of work goes into pulling off the much-anticipated event. At Fine Creek, it starts with a list. “Our Santa Runs go for six consecutive nights. Most of our members have full-time jobs and family commitments, so we use sign-up sheets to ensure we have an adequate number of volunteers each night,” Walker explains.
Next comes lining up a Santa Claus.
Bill Donati Sr. has been volunteering for Fine Creek since 1995. He enjoys donning a white beard, red suit and black boots for the star role during many of the department’s Santa Runs. Some years, his health has kept him from being able to do it. But, if he can, he will. It’s all for the kids, he says. “I enjoy bringing smiles to everyone’s faces, especially the children.”
Unfortunately, Fine Creek and Huguenot — like many other volunteer departments across Virginia and Maryland — can’t hit every neighborhood in their districts. But they try to visit as many as they can.
While the fire departments make escorting Santa look easy, it’s truly a team effort. “The Santa Runs are an ‘all-hands’ event for our members, meaning we need everybody to contribute for them to be successful,” Walker explains.
Huguenot’s Santa Runs take place for three consecutive nights. In addition to the Santa Runs, Huguenot holds an annual Santa Breakfast fundraiser in December where the community is invited to enjoy breakfast with Santa at the firehouse. It provides another opportunity for families to meet the department’s firefighters and EMTs.
“We love community involvement, and we want to be out in our community as much as possible,” explains Tim Lawson, Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department’s district chief and volunteer of 10 years.
REIN ON THE PARADE
What happens if the department gets an emergency call while out escorting Santa?
According to Walker, it happened a couple of years ago for Fine Creek while Santa and his entourage were out in a local neighborhood visiting families. There was a vehicle fire reported at the other end of the department’s district. “If an emergency comes in, we automatically bail out and we’re en route. That’s why we carry a full crew on our apparatus when we go out [on the Santa Runs] … . We exit the neighborhood, and we answer the call.”
At Huguenot, the possibility of emergency calls is why it’s crucial to get the “game plan” established before leaving the station each night. “We have had calls come in during the Santa Runs. If that happens, the necessary equipment will peel off and answer the call,” Lawson explains.
In 2021, for example, answering the call made for a very long night for several area volunteer fire departments. Huguenot had just completed a successful first night of Santa Runs when they got an emergency call. Volunteer firefighters from Huguenot, Fine Creek and Powhatan were all dispatched to numerous reports of brush fires and a vehicle accident in the northeastern part of Powhatan County.
“When those types of calls come in, we’ll often need to stay up all night. And the majority of us have daytime paying jobs and are back at work doing our regular jobs the next day,” Lawson points out. “But that’s why we’re here.”
Firefighters don’t just enter burning buildings and rescue cats out of trees. In fact, fire emergencies make up a small fraction of the calls to which most volunteer fire departments respond. The majority of emergency calls include automatic fire alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, brush fires, medical incidents, animal rescue, motor-vehicle accidents, water problems and any situation deemed hazardous or dangerous.
According to DeHart, a common misconception about volunteer fire departments is that volunteers have less training than career firefighters. “We go through the exact same training as our career staff go through,” he explains.
In addition to multiple levels of fire training, volunteer firefighters have access to training in other areas and emergency situations, such as technical rope rescues, hazardous training, bomb calls, water rescue, search-and-rescue, electrical emergencies, rail car accidents, electric vehicle extrication, and more.
HO, HO, HOPE
Hope — it’s something Santa Claus brings to children all over the world each year. It can be seen in children’s wide eyes when they know Santa has arrived, and in their need to believe in something good. In the same way, firefighters’ life-saving work brings hope — and help — in times of dire need.
Shannon Hurt, a resident in Huguenot’s district and a Southside Electric Cooperative member, enjoys seeing her local fire department volunteers serve the community in such a positive way — by being purveyors of holiday cheer through the Santa Runs, and by giving selflessly of their time to be there when community members are in need.
“We are blessed to live in a community where our fire departments go above and beyond their duty as firefighters,” she says. “The Santa Runs help connect our children to local firefighters in a festive and happy manner. We look forward to standing at the end of our driveway for a fourth year and welcoming Christmas with this year’s Santa Run.”