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By Preston Knightfirstname.lastname@example.org
NEW MARKET -- After logging nearly 50 years of volunteer service for the town's fire and rescue companies, John Blosser could recount seeing it all, except for the one thing that always seemed on the verge of happening until personalities got in the way.
Once the new year rings in Saturday, he will finally see it all.
New Market's emergency departments will officially merge at midnight, able to run calls out of the current fire hall as Company 23, the fire department's number. Its name will be New Market Fire & Rescue Inc.
And Blosser, who began volunteering with the fire department in 1961, and was a charter member of the rescue squad when it formed in 1974, will be president of the merged organization. For him, it has to be better late than never.
"They tried a couple times to merge," said Blosser, who is also a town councilman. "Circumstances [stopped them]. I don't want to go any further than that. ... The merger is something that should've been done years ago."
From a personnel standpoint, it was never feasible until now, he said. The fire department has seemingly been plagued with poor leadership too often, Blosser said.
"If you didn't agree with them," he said, "they didn't want you here."
But with the merger, the fire department's woes will be aided by having the squad's leadership, and the squad's low membership number of 15 will be boosted by having the fire company's roster at its disposal. Cost savings also should be realized for both.
"I'm really looking forward to it," said Blosser, 71.
For the fire department, in particular, the merger signals a move toward better relations with the community, which has seen a number of recent problems arise in the organization. The two most glaring black eyes were evidence of possible fraud in 2008 that led to the ouster of seven members, including then-Fire Chief Danny McAlexander, and two volunteers later being convicted of setting fires in Shenandoah and Rockingham counties.
After Matt Hughes, McAlexander's replacement, recently stepped down from volunteering, Robbie Smith became the new fire chief, and will be chief of the merged company.
He said he has pushed for everyone to work as a team, which includes realizing the importance of the career staff who provide coverage each day.
"Man, I tell you what, it just clicked, like a puzzle," said Smith, 38, who has volunteered for 22 years. "It's been great."
The biggest challenge for the merged company will be the call volume, he said. The fire department, which has members cross training so they can respond to rescue calls, receives about 400 calls a year, while the squad answers 1,500, Smith said.
The two departments have a history of operating out of a single building.
Blosser said the rescue squad spent its first 10 years with the fire department at the old fire hall, which is now New Market Grocery. The squad did not pay rent, but helped fund an addition that included putting a bay door on the backside.
The squad moved out because of space limitations, occupying what is now Paul Davis Restoration, and then in 1999 obtained a special-use permit to operate at the current squad building on North Congress Street, Blosser said.
The fire department moved to its current location on South Congress Street in 1997, he said.
Getting the new firehouse constructed in the mid-1990s led to some headaches, Blosser said, as he was among a group of older volunteers who tried to warn younger ones that the building was going to cost more than they thought. It wound up costing $1 million, and almost half of that is still owed, he said.
Frustrated at the time, Blosser, who joined the company because it was something to do and eventually met his wife of nearly 40 years through volunteering, stepped down from the fire department and "didn't have anything to do with it" for about 10 years. He is a life member of the company, however.
"They were close to bankrupt," Blosser said. "When I first joined, the olders, we respected what they had to say. The younger generation, when I was the older generation, wasn't looking at it [the same way]. I just said, well, it's time for me to leave."
Smith called Blosser a legend and hard-nosed.
"That's what we need," he said. "I'm a stickler for the rules. With me and him together, along with everybody else, I think we'll be all right."
As a merged company, the plan is to pay off some of the building costs by selling the squad's facility, which is listed at $695,000.
The new company also will continue weekly bingo nights on Fridays, the same day the squad had them and averaged 100 players, netting about $2,000 a night, Blosser said.
By continuing with play on Friday, the building can be rented out for events on Saturdays, something the squad did almost every week, he added.
Starting Saturday, the squad will not have events of its own to promote. Blosser said the relationship between the two companies has noticeably improved in the last several months. For example, during meetings, representatives have started sitting together more and mingling, instead of keeping their distance on opposing sides.
That's a small indication that the merged company may just work. Blosser expects to see it happen.
"We know it's going to be problems. You take care of problems before they cause problems," he said. "I'm confident it's going to work."