Leesburg's volunteer firefighters are on call for five 12-hour shifts a month: four overnights and one weekend day. Until last week, they also had to help out at bingo at least one Friday night a month at the fire station on Loudoun Street.
But Leesburg's tradition of Friday night bingo has come to an end, the result of changing demographics, dwindling attendance and a growing population that has spread the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company too thin to continue with the event that, for 30 years, has raised money for fuel, insurance and some of the costs of buying firetrucks.
Deputy Chief Marty Mantell, a Loudoun County construction inspector who has been a volunteer firefighter for 30 years, said the 65 active volunteers in Leesburg's Company 1 expect to respond to more than 2,000 calls this year, four times as many as in the 1980s. Several dozen other members perform administrative work and bring refreshments to fire scenes.
"If we add a bingo a month, it puts a tough strain on the firefighters and their families," Mantell said.
At the same time, attendance at bingo games has been declining as older people die or move away and younger people move in. Many families new to Loudoun have two working spouses with long commutes and less time for community events than previous generations did.
"If people are coming from an area other than a small community, they may not recognize how a volunteer fire department or rescue squad operates and needs support from individual residents," Mantell said. "When that's not a local tradition, this type of organization may not be something that they're familiar with."
Mantell said attendance started to decline in the late 1990s from an average of about 145 players a night to 120 or fewer, below the break-even point. The firefighters tried to attract more players with more prize money and video screens that displayed the numbers before they were called.
"Those improvements didn't seem to make a lot of difference," Mantell said. "We were paying out as much or more as we were taking in."
The decision to end Friday night bingo in Leesburg was made in January, but one last extravaganza was held Friday in the wood-paneled hall nicknamed "The Flame Room." The event drew more than 300 people -- some from as far away as Falls Church and Winchester -- and made a profit of about $13,000, about twice as much as Mantell had expected. After more than three hours of bingo, festivities wrapped up with a sweepstakes in which four people split a $16,000 jackpot that had been accumulating since summer 2003.
"It was amazing the people that showed up to support the fire company for the last time," said Sue Smith, 55, who often brought her 82-year-old mother to play bingo at a certain rear table with her friends. Smith remembered her elders going to the bingo games during her high school years in the 1960s.
Mantell said bingo receipts are down throughout Loudoun County and the region. Purcellville firefighters ended their Wednesday night games several years ago, although weekly games in Round Hill and Lovettsville are going strong.
Catherine Wilson, a bingo regular for 20 years, said she intends to continue playing in Sterling, Manassas and Winchester but will miss the crowd at her table in Leesburg on Friday nights. "You meet new friends; you have a good time," said Wilson, 47, a cashier at Wal-Mart. "It's just my way of relaxing after work."
The Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company receives about half of its $850,000 budget from the county and the Town of Leesburg. It acquires the rest through such fundraising activities as mail solicitations, taking family portraits and raffling cars and other prizes bought at a discount.
In addition to the bingo blowout, the volunteers sent firefighters' boots Friday to local shops and restaurants to encourage customers to donate their change to the fire company. James Fazekas, chairman of the company's fundraising committee, said the drive raised more than $1,000.
Mantell said the volunteer company will continue those kinds of fundraising efforts and pursue newer ones such as selling T-shirts and holding pancake breakfasts. Mantell said it was also crucial to reach out to the community to raise awareness of the volunteer squad and encourage new residents to join. One such event will be an open house at the fire station Saturday, at which children can ride the firetrucks, play with miniature hoses and learn about fire prevention.
Volunteer firefighter Debbie Etter first played bingo at the Leesburg fire station 24 years ago, when she was expecting her first child. Her daughter, Heather Nicklow, is now 23 and herself a bingo devotee.
Both mother and daughter were at the Friday night finale, and Etter was at her post selling bingo cards for $1 each for the last time and, as always, getting blamed for those that lost and praised for selling those that won big.
One of Etter's customers was Connie Clem, wife of county Supervisor Jim E. Clem (R-Leesburg) and a Friday night regular for about 15 years.
"I'm kind of sad that it's over, but I understand from the firemen's perspective," said Clem, 59, who now plans to go out to dinner on Friday nights with some of the friends she has made playing bingo.
Last year she won a $1,000 jackpot and used part of it to pay for a trip to Florida. But she said a big win was rare for her, and she came up empty again Friday. Clem usually played 12 cards at a time, while others in the hall had 15 or even 18.
"I always felt that even though I was a loser at bingo, I was really helping out the fire department," she said.