“Junior” Lynch went to the Henry County Board of Supervisors meeting on Jan. 25 because the Bassett Fire Department was requesting items from the county.
But when other members of the fire department showed up, along with Jeb Bassett, of Bassett Furniture, and even Lynch’s mother, Esther Waller, he suspected something was up.
Indeed it was. Lynch, the chief of the Bassett Fire Department for the past 19 years, was presented with the Jack Dalton Award, the “highest honor and most prestigious award” given by the board of supervisors to recognize “exemplary community service,” according to its resolution honoring Lynch.
The resolution noted that Lynch “not only serves selflessly but enhances the public service of his peers through monthly training sessions that inspire the next generation of leaders to continuously ‘think outside the box.’”
He “dedicates numerous unpaid man-hours on top of his volunteer time to see to the upkeep of his department’s facilities and equipment, saving countless dollars that are used on gear and supplies to better serve the community,” the resolution continued. His devotion has earned him “the admiration and respect of not only his crew but the fire safety community at large,” it added.
“I was very surprised, very honored,” Lynch said in a recent interview. “It’s only given out to one person a year.”
Bassett Fire Department President Manker Stone nominated Lynch for the honor.
In a separate interview, Stone echoed the resolution, noting that Lynch runs all but maybe 2 percent of the more than 300 calls the department gets each year and spends countless hours on a computer with reports and research, fixing equipment and establishing a good relationship with others, among other things.
He nominated Lynch because “I thought the rest of the county ought to know the kind of dedication he puts into it.”
“When somebody from our department is recognized with something like the Jack Dalton Award, it looks good not only on that person but the department as a whole. We have a lot of pride in the department,” Stone added.
As captain, Lynch said he tries to be “fair with everybody. I try to treat everybody the same. There are a lot (of department members) who have been here longer than me that I respect a lot. The fire department is more like a family than a department,” he said, adding that members are close-knit and look after each other.
That is important for a department that responds to fires, accidents and other emergencies. The chief is in charge of all fire scenes where he is present and overall department operations.
“I guess the best part (of being chief) is probably knowing that you’re supervising 40 volunteers, looking after their safety, and making sure everyone comes home,” Lynch said.
Some volunteers have had minor injuries on his watch, but none have been killed, he said.
And the worst part of being chief? “I don’t know if there is a worst part,” he said. “If there was, I probably would have quit a long time ago.”
A FAMILY TRADITION
Charles Eugene “Junior” Lynch Jr., a native of Bassett, was raised around firefighting. His father, Charlie Eugene Lynch Sr., is a lifetime member of the Bassett Fire Department and was its chief from 1981 to 1984. When “Junior” Lynch was kindergartener at Mary Hunter Elementary School, he dressed as a fire chief for career day.
He graduated from Bassett High School and Patrick & Henry Community College before he joined the fire department in 1996 at age 20, about 25 years ago. He began as a probationary member and completed Firefighter 1 and 2 training to become a certified firefighter in his first year.
A certified firefighter “can do about anything as far as firefighting,” Lynch said. Today, he is a state instructor helping teach those classes.
He rose through the ranks, serving as engineer, second captain, first captain, deputy chief (three years) and then chief. At that time, his goal was to be like his father and serve as chief for four years.
Nineteen years later he still is chief, voted in by the department’s 40 members every year.
“I’ll keep doing it until someone else steps up to do it or I want to step away,” he said, “but every year it’s always my name on the ballot. … I’ve just had an awesome bunch of officers and members. Everybody’s been good to work with. I never thought I didn’t want to be chief.”
Lynch estimated he spends an average of 100 hours a month on fire department duties in addition to his full-time job as maintenance director at Bassett Furniture Industries.
He joined Bassett Furniture about the same time he joined the fire department. He credits the company with always supporting his fire department service, letting him run calls and handling business as needed.
Serving in the fire department has been “everything I thought it would be,” Lynch said. That is, “the feeling that you’re helping others, getting an occasional pat on the back that you don’t normally get, a ‘thank you.’”
The Bassett Fire Department averages about 325 calls each year. About 20-25 percent of those calls are fires, one third are vehicle accidents and the rest are false alarms, Lynch said.
When a call comes in, firefighters do not know if it is a false alarm or a major industrial fire until someone gets on the scene and can assess the situation, Lynch said.
In the past seven years, he estimated that three factory fires in the Bassett area have required county-wide fire department responses. Those fires can be scarier to battle but firefighters put that aside as they start to work protecting the surrounding areas by keeping the fire from spreading, he said.
“Probably the largest first major industrial that I had was at the old J.D. Bassett plant,” Lynch said, in 2011. A 300,000-square-foot building burned, but a warehouse was spared in the blaze that was battled by crews from throughout Henry County as well as Patrick County and a ladder truck from Franklin County, he added.
The 69-year-old Bassett department covers most of the Bassett area and has a mutual aid agreement with other county departments as well as Patrick and Franklin counties. Also, an ambulance and career (paid) rescue crew are stationed at the department through Henry County Public Safety.
All the county’s fire departments are staffed with volunteers, but Lynch said that may change in the next five to 10 years if the ranks of volunteers continue to shrink. The Bassett Fire Department has had as many as 50 members but has held around 40 in recent years, he said.
“I’m on the wall about that,” Lynch said of paid firefighters. “You may lose some volunteers if you hire paid (staff) and put them in a volunteer station. Volunteers save the public a ton of money, but when you can’t recruit people, you have to cover some of that.”
Another major change Lynch has seen in firefighting is more advanced equipment at a much higher price. For instance, in 1986 the Bassett department bought a ladder truck for $286,000, which area industries helped fund. Today, Henry County is helping the department buy a new ladder truck, due in July 2023, at a cost of $1.2 million, Lynch said.
The department gets 50-60 percent of its budget from Henry County, he said. The rest comes from fundraising, a letter drive, donations and similar sources.
“It takes a lot of hot dogs to buy a fire truck,” Lynch said with a laugh.
He also helps recruit firefighters and suggests that anyone interested in volunteering come to the department’s meeting on the first Monday of every month to apply. The recruits are issued a pager and run calls to see if they want to pursue membership, whether it is as a certified firefighter or cleaning the department’s five trucks or helping with office work.
“There’s always something to do,” Lynch added.
In addition, anyone interested in joining a county fire department or rescue squad can apply online through hcdps.com or call Henry County Public Safety at 634-4660.