Donald White and the rest of the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department have had enough. They say that history has turned its back on them, and that the time has finally come to fight fire with water.
The volunteers, created in 1774 by George Washington -- probably America's most illustrious fire buff -- were forced to lay down their ladders in 1981 when the Alexandria city manager decided that they should undergo the same rigorous training as the city's paid firefighters. Most volunteers said that they would have had to quit their jobs to enroll in the 16-week course.
Now, invoking Washington's name at every turn -- they refer to him as "the Founding Firefighter" -- the volunteers are preparing to fight City Hall and climb back on their fire trucks.
"The power boys downtown tell people we're incompetent," said White, the informal historian of the volunteer organization. "But we're the root, and that city fire department there is only a little branch. George would never take it, no way. If he were alive today he'd just cuss them out."
Last month, John D. Grad, the volunteers' lawyer, informed Alexandria officials that the volunteer group "has the right and obligation to fight fires in the city." Grad said that next month, the volunteer force will be back in business.
Since then the temperature has risen steadily in the long and bitter Cold War between the city's paid firefighters and the volunteers.
Alexandria Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel and Fire Chief James E. Hicks have warned that they are prepared to arrest any of the remaining nine active members of the volunteer force if the volunteers make good on their promise and start fighting fires again.
The volunteers say Virginia law protects their place on any city fire truck and that they will see those laws enforced, even if they have to get state troopers to arrest city firefighters.
"We have the right to do our job in this state," said Grad. "And nobody in Alexandria can legally interfere with us. We have the same power of arrest that they have, and if we are forced to call the Virginia State Police and have them arrest Alexandria firefighters, we will do it."
Grad cites a section of Virginia law that lists the requirements for a volunteer force to be legally recognized.
"There are about seven hoops, and we've jumped through them all," Grad said. He cited City Council approval, registering names in court, possessing equipment that is in good condition, and designating a chief.
"We've done it, and the city could use our help," said Grad.
Deputy City Attorney Robert L. Murphy said that he had received a memorandum from Grad and that the city is looking into the issue.
"Nobody wants a confrontation here," said Murphy. "We are trying to avoid that. But we don't think the volunteers can get very far by challenging the city."
Feuds are nothing new to Alexandria's firefighters: The city archives are filled with accounts of firemen in leather helmets and flannel shirts bickering with each other while federal mansions were consumed by flames.
This latest battle got its start in 1981, when Alexandria adopted tough new physical and training standards for all its firefighters, paid and volunteer. The Alexandria standards, which are among the most demanding in the region, effectively ended the volunteers' 200-year history of fighting fires in the city.
Last year, the volunteers lost a federal lawsuit in which they claimed that they are being destroyed by regulations that unfairly exempt salaried, longtime firefighters from the new rules.
Both a federal district court judge and a federal appeals court disagreed, saying that the city had a right to impose the new regulations selectively on the volunteers and paid firefighters.
"We cannot just take anybody who wants to hang around the firehouse and give them a good time," said Chief Hicks. "That would not be fair to the people of Alexandria.
"These folks have been around for years and they get a certain excitement out of being on the fire scene, and they want to be part of it."
Hicks said that he would be happy to use volunteers if they pass the 16-week course. He also said that if they could not pass the tests to perform emergency roles, he would gladly find other things for them to do to help the force.
But the volunteers contend that helping out the hired hands works against the tradition that Washington started when he purchased Alexandria's first fire pump for $400, while he was commander of the Continental Army in 1775. Washington arranged to have the gleaming red machine hauled home from Philadelphia by ox cart and stored in a red brick station that stands today in Old Town.
In those days, members of the volunteer fire force were among the most respected residents of Alexandria, principally because they had to be wealthy enough to pay for their own firefighting gear. This meant that volunteers usually were rich and important.
In 1827 the fortunes of the thriving volunteer force in Alexandria plummmeted when the town nearly burned to the ground. That month the city of Alexandria, for the first time, appropriated funds for fire prevention. By 1851, when a new steam pump was rushed from Alexandria across the Potomac to help battle the week-long blaze at the Capitol, volunteers were beginning to take a back seat to professionals.
Alexandria now has eight fully staffed fire stations and more than 200 salaried employes in emergency service. Every paid firefighter is certified by the state and meets its high standards, according to Hicks.
The volunteers say they have been dealt a low blow by men who care nothing of their past.
"A power grab," said Jay Johnson, a volunteer, "that's all this is. But they can't stop us or keep us out. We have Washington on our side."