Virtue sworn in as new deputy fire chief

Benny Westcott

New Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District deputy chief George Virtue was officially sworn in Friday, Dec. 20, during the organization’s board meeting at the Jim Riggs Community Center.

He took the role in October following the second retirement of Doug Emmert, who had held the position since 2018. A district mainstay, Emmert served the community from 1977 to 2011 before returning to the fold four years ago. (“Departures, returns at fire department,” The New Era, Nov. 23, 2022)

The 46-year-old Virtue has volunteered with the district for 18 years, serving as a firefighter for eight years and as a lieutenant for 10.

Fire Chief Nick Tyler looked forward to watching the veteran grow in his new role.

“When looking to fill the open deputy chief position, the fire district needed someone who had administrative experience, fire and rescue operational knowledge and leadership skills,” Tyler said.

“George’s experiences matched exactly what the district needed on every level. He possesses the skills needed to help manage and lead, as well as the understanding of how the district operates in emergency scenarios. The level of institutional respect the organization has for George is very high. His background, skills and temperament allow him to work with all internal and external stakeholders.”

“I’m there to help out with the leadership of the department,” Virtue said of his new responsibilities. “I can fill in when our fire chief is out. I’ve got quite a bit of background in personnel management, so I can help with those issues. I’m going to try to bring a positive attitude, and a leadership style to keep my people and the community safe.”

He commended his chief and staff.

“Nick has a great attitude,” he said. “He truly cares for the community and the people. And we’ve got a great group of battalion chiefs who are very well-trained and care about their people and the community.”

That dedication has faced its share of recent challenges, primarily with volunteer recruitment and staff numbers.

Virtue explained that Sweet Home was a mixed department because of its size, with paid staff manning the “first out” rig and medic units while volunteers handle “those rescues on the fire calls and that type of thing.” However, he added, the latter numbers haven’t been easy to come by.

“There was a big group that retired when the Baby Boomers started retiring, so we’re always looking for new people,” he said. “But we’re getting newer and newer volunteers all the time, and the people that we’re bringing in have that same type of attitude, where they care about the community and want to serve.”

Demand for paid staff positions has dwindled as well.

“It used to be when you had a job opening, you’d have 20 to 50 people apply for it,” he said. “But it’s getting harder and harder to find those. There are tons of careers you can go into, and there’s so many things that you can do with your free time. There’s not a lot of people that have time to volunteer or are looking to volunteer.”

Virtue himself first took the leap into volunteering with the SHFAD at the turn of the 21st century, explaining his reasons as almost a calling.

“First and foremost,” he said, “I believe we are put on this earth for a purpose, and anything I can do to make it a better place, that’s going to be my focus in everything that I do.”

That calling seemed to run in both Virtue’s bloodline and within his immediate surroundings. also George Virtue Sr. was a volunteer firefighter in California for the Denair Volunteer Fire Department, and when the family moved to Sweet Home in 1990, the 14-year-old found himself surrounded by peers whose parents did the same thing. And when he graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1994, he watched a lot of his friends continue that tradition.

So, it was only natural that eventually he would too. That fall, he enrolled at Oregon State University, where he met his wife, Tiffany, marrying her his junior year. They welcomed their first daughter, Mackenzie, the following year.

After graduating in 1998, he joined the Oregon Department of Forestry’s “Fire and Ice” program, which involved firefighting during the summer and snowplowing at the Santiam Pass for the Oregon Department of Transportation in the winter. During those warmer months, he’d report to blazes, meeting and working side-by-side with SHFAD personnel.

“I just thought ‘Man, what a great group of guys,’” he recalled. “And then a couple of them said ‘Hey, you should start volunteering,’ and so I did as soon as I could.”

After a couple of years with Fire and Ice, Virtue moved to grass seed sales and seed production at a seed coating facility in Tangent, for about a year and a half. He then took a job at Jeld-Wen Inc., a door and window manufacturer in Stayton, managing a department at the company from 2003 to 2012.

Virtue next worked a two-year stint as operations manager at the Sweet Home-based Glacier Window and Door before returning to Jeld-Wen in 2014 — this time at a branch in Klamath Falls, where his family, now with three children (Mackenzie was joined by Alexis and then Samantha), spent four years before deciding to return to the Willamette Valley.

So Virtue found a job as operations manager at Weyerhauser’s Santiam Lumber Mill between Sweet Home and Lebanon and the family moved back to Sweet Home.

Throughout, Virtue served SHFAD as a volunteer from 2000 to 2014 and from 2018 to the present, breaking only to live in Klamath Falls. He was promoted to lieutenant with the district in 2008.

“When you become a lieutenant, instead of being a firefighter, now you’re responsible for a crew of firefighters,” he explained. “Generally, you’ll be responsible for an apparatus and all the crew members on that. Your focus changes a little bit. When you’re a firefighter, it’s more about getting the work done.

When you’re a lieutenant you’re getting the work done, but through other people and keeping your people safe.”

When asked why he’s continued to volunteer for 18 years, Virtue said, “I love this community. There’s a reason why we moved back here from Klamath Falls and why we continue to stick around here. The camaraderie of the group of people that we have [at the SHFAD] — it’s just a great group of people to serve with. Typically, we see people on their worst days, and if I can do anything to make that worst day a little bit better, that’s what keeps me going.”