By Sarah Vogelsong
Lt. Paul Ernest may only be 33, but he’s well on his way toward a lifetime in service.
A member of the first EMT class offered at Caroline High School, Ernest has been involved in county fire and rescue since joining the Ladysmith Fire Department at age 15, and over the years, except for a three-year stint with the Sheriff’s Office, he’s worked his way up the ladder.
It’s work that was somewhat in the blood for the Caroline native—Ernest’s father before him had been involved in volunteer fire and rescue. And although his father stopped running calls while his son was still a child, by the time Ernest started volunteering in 1996, he was already familiar with a few of the faces down at the station.
Since then, Ernest has worked both sides of fire and rescue and in both a volunteer and a career capacity. He continued to volunteer throughout high school—once he reached 16, he was allowed to join the rescue squad—as well as after graduation, only pausing when he became a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office in 2001 and was no longer permitted by regulations to volunteer.
As a deputy, Ernest said, he had to “do it all”: issue civil papers and arrest warrants, handle radar and traffic stops, and work community events—“basically whatever needed to be done.” At times, he said it was difficult when working accidents or other crisis situations not to slip back into his prior role, where the focus was on helping the patient.
During this time, however, he stayed in touch with his former compatriots in fire and rescue.
“As soon as I left the Sheriff’s Office, there was no doubt I was going back into it,” he said.
In 2004, Ernest returned to volunteering with the Ladysmith Rescue Squad and the Bowling Green Fire Department before he was hired by the county part-time in 2005 and then full-time in 2006. Today, he’s a career lieutenant with Caroline Fire and Rescue, based at the Bowling Green fire station, a position he’s held since 2010.
It’s a supervisory role that comes with a number of different hats. On a daily basis, Ernest is in charge of running both EMS and fire-related calls and tasks such as personnel management and handling all the supplies at the station. He’s also currently an infectious control officer and is working toward becoming a radiological exposure control officer, one of the frontline people who would help organize the response in case of an emergency at the North Anna Power Station.
With 12-hour shifts and the general unpredictability of emergency response, the work is tough—especially because it often involves seeing people on the worst day of their life.
“The stuff you could see on a daily basis, whether it’s children or somebody losing a loved one, you see them at their worst, and you have to be able to deal with that and categorize (those experiences) in your mind,” said Ernest.
Older members of the service have helped out over the years in dealing with such challenges. Like everyone else on the squad, Ernest has undergone extensive training in how to deal with baseline situations—but, he said, “in the real world, things unfortunately don’t always go like the perfect situation, and so you do get some mentorship.”
Despite its difficulties, Ernest finds the work unquestionably worthwhile.
“It’s not a high-paying job, but it’s a high-rewarding job,” he said. Part of that reward is “being able to give back to the community that I grew up in and have lived in my entire life.”
“I don’t do it for the thank you or for the glory of saying I’m a firefighter,” he said. “I do it more for that rewarding feeling I get of helping out and making a difference.”
Outside of fire and rescue, Ernest is a family man—he married his high school sweetheart, and the two have a 7-year-old son—and an avid fisherman, a sport he learned from his father and is now passing along to the next generation.
Keeping close with family is, he said, one of the most important things anyone can do in life, and an ongoing commitment that has helped him in his service.
“If that support’s not there, it is a difficult job,” he said. “But when you’ve got family there that supports you and is willing to deal with those long nights, those overnight shifts…that makes all the difference in the world.”