Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 24, 2013

Proud to serve

Fire Chief looks back on family history of firefighters

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — As a young man growing up, Bluefield Fire Chief Jeff Warden didn’t have far to go to hear the voices of emergency dispatchers calling out for fire, police and rescue squads to respond to uncertainty.

“When the Green Valley-Glenwood Volunteer Fire Department was just starting out, dad had the base station set up at our house,” Jeff Warden said. His father, W.L. Warden, was a charter member of the Green Valley-Glenwood Department when it was established in 1963 and served as the department’s second chief. “We listened to calls all the time. Mom didn’t want us to listen, but we did.”

It wasn’t until a few years later when Jeff Warden decided that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“Dad and Dickie Cumbow came by Ceres Elementary School when I was in first or second grade,” Warden said. Richard Cumbow was Green Valley-Glenwood’s fourth chief.

“They were there making a presentation for Fire Prevention Week. They sprayed the hose around a little and brought some equipment with them. That was when I stood up and said I wanted to be a fireman.”

Warden’s firefighting roots run deep. His father was moved to join with other community-minded citizens of Green Valley and the surrounding communities when a residential fire on Airport Road turned tragic for a family. “At the time, Warden’s Market and Hills were about the only businesses in Green Valley,” Jeff Warden said of his father’s business that was located where Freedom Motor Sports is now located. “I remember that we sold hot-dogs at out store to raise funds for the department.”

Even before that, Jeff Warden’s grandfather T.A. “Tom” Warden Sr., was a charter member of the Montcalm Volunteer Fire Department. “The Montcalm Fire Department opened in 1929, just one month before the stock market collapsed,” Jeff Warden said. “Warden’s Market got its start in Montcalm as a gas station that sold potato chips.

“When I was just getting my driver’s license, I drove my grandfather around in his car,” Warden said. “My son (William Richard Warden, 15) has his learner’s permit now. He’s driving my father around like I drove my grandfather around.” In addition to his grandfather and father’s connection to local fire departments, Jeff Warden’s uncle, T.A. “Buddy” Warden Jr., served for many years as chief of the Bluewell Volunteer Fire Department.

Jeff Warden grew up in Green Valley, graduated from Princeton Senior High School in 1982, and earned his undergraduate degree in business management with a major in accounting and minor in management from Bluefield State College in 1987. “After I graduated from college, I started volunteering with the Bluewell Volunteer Fire Department,” Warden said.

With the exception of his volunteer work, Warden did not have a full-time job, so he moved to northern Virginia to enter the management training program with Hechingers Hardware. The program folded when the company went bankrupt, and Warden returned home to Mercer County.

“I saw an ad in the paper for firefighters with the Bluefield Fire Department,” Warden said. “I applied, took my tests in April of 1993, and started with the department in October 1993.

“I think of these guys as family,” Warden said of his fellow firefighters in Bluefield. “You actually enjoy coming to work. We work for the public, and we appreciate the trust the public has in us.”

The work can be physically and emotionally challenging. “Some of the toughest fires to work are when there are fire deaths,” Warden said. “The same can be true for fatal vehicle wrecks. Sometimes, the difference between life and death can be something as simple as not using seat belts. The thing that makes you feel good is when you can rescue people.

“Our first responders program has saved a lot of lives through the years, but we have had to cut back on the program because of financial restraints,” Warden said. “I think a lot of services have had to make cut-backs.”

Warden and Captain Richard Hodge brought out a photograph showing the department as it was in 1989. At that time, there were 32 firefighters and officers in the department.

Now, there are 19 in the department, “including me,” Warden said. “We started the first responders program in 1994. The economy has caused many changes everywhere. All I can say is that we’re doing the best that we can.”

When he was serving as a captain with the department, Warden also held down a part-time job delivering home-heating fuel for Highland Propane. After he stepped into the job as chief, he quit working his part-time job.

“When I was working a shift, I used to be able to take our boys out fishing during the day, but it has been good, getting home every night,” he said.

Jeff and Lisa Warden have two sons, William Richard Warden, 15, and Brendan Jeffrey Warden, 11. Lisa works as a medical secretary at Glenwood Park Retirement Village.

“I really believe in transparency here,” Warden said. “If something is happening, I would rather they hear it from me than to hear it out in the rumor mills.”

Warden said that the department has employed some tactics to address the over-all staffing challenges including bringing in off-duty personnel as needed. “We rely on Bluefield, Va., Volunteer Fire Department as out RIT — Rapid Intervention Team,” Warden said. “We’re not calling them to fight fires. We call them in so we have enough staffing at a fire. We can put Green Valley-Glenwood on standby. We’ll even page out Bluewell Volunteer Fire Department. The last time we were called out on a mutual aid situation was for that apartment building fire in Welch a few years ago when they needed a ladder truck.

“I’m a firm believer in placing your emphasis on your people,” Warden said. “We do have some great people and come great leaders like Captain Glenn Sutphin, Captain Stan McKenzie and Captain Hodge. Those are the guys who help me keep this machine rolling.”

The department has a great tradition that dates back to a time before the city of Bluefield was incorporated on Nov. 20, 1889.

“Our fire service was implemented by the railroad because the cinders from the steam locomotives were burning the houses down,” Warden said. The (then) Norfolk & Western Railway ran its first track through Bluefield in 1882, and started transporting coal to Hampton Roads, Va., on March 13, 1883.

“I remember coming up here with dad,” Warden said. “They used to fix hoses for the other departments. I remember that most of the guys would smoke, and a blue cloud would hang down from the ceiling. A lot has changed since then, but there is still a great tradition and great people here,” he said.

— Contact Bill Archer at