How I fell off a 1963 American LaFrance pumper, and why 70% of fire companies fear closing

Swedesburg fir truckUnlike the Army drill sergeant, you can’t recruit the unwilling to become volunteers at your local fire station.

And that is causing a huge national problem – too few volunteers to drive trucks, connect hoses, dash into buildings, douse flames and save lives.

Some 70% of all the fire companies in the United States are volunteer. Instead of the $180 per hour your grumpy plumber charges, these firefighters risk their lives for free – no pensions, no bonuses, just smoke in their lungs and joy helping others.

I’m preaching from personal experience.

In the late 1960s I moved to Swedesburg, Upper Merion, a tiny village in Southeastern Pennsylvania. About 2 AM my first night there, I jumped out of bed, when a fire siren screamed through the window.

That siren was located just next door on top of the local funeral home – some 30 feet from my bed. It served the Swedesburg Vol. Fire Company, directly across the street.

Some nights, especially during thunderstorms, that siren could wail two or three times. After a couple weeks, I decided to volunteer to become a firefighter. If I was to be awakened, why not for a good cause?

It was a grand decision. Not just the 15-cent beers. Not only learning to play pinochle from first generation Polish experts. Not even the sweet agony of mastering the Polka at a fire house wedding.

The magic drama was fighting fires, protecting property, saving lives – being one of a highly-trained team of brave and fearless individuals, who were always pushing harder to improve their skills and guarantee the viability of their fire company.

And I also learned how to fall off a fire truck with minimum resulting bodily damage.

It happened on an early morning run. No time to even drink very necessary coffee.

The fire was in King of Prussia, where the PA turnpike meets the Schuylkill Expressway, and our truck zoomed into Bridgeport and then made a hard left turn up Route 202. Standing on the back bumper, I momentarily forgot where I was and scratched my nose.

Unfortunately, I used the hand holding the bar on the back of the pumper and off I went, skidding on my knees.

Back at the fire house, Bernie Gutkowski – a former fire chief and the township’s sole undertaker – examined my badly scraped knees, and then announced:

I’ll be right back. I have just what you need .

He returned with a small bottle of clear liquid, which he poured on my knees and watched me writhe and scream. Three days later, the scrapes were gone – no infection, no problems.

A week later I had to ask him what was the magic chemical in the bottle. His answer: formaldehyde.

But being a fire company volunteer is not just fun and games. Brush fires can choke you. House fires sadden, when you realize a family’s loss. Downed, sparking electric wires jump and twist at you. And worst of all, the constant specter of death.

In Pennsylvania, more than 90 percent of the state’s fire companies are volunteer, and since my stint in the 60s, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by 88 percent.

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) reports that younger generations are simply not signing up to volunteer:

Modern lifestyles involve more transience than in past generations. More families consist of two-income households or people working multiple jobs, and often employers impose inflexible schedules that make volunteering to fight fires in off-hours much more difficult.

Today’s Millennials also have far more debt than previous generations carried – particularly from student loans. Many husbands and wives must both work full-time to pay bills, leaving little availability for community service.

The NVFC says that because more than half of the volunteer firefighters in the country are more than 40 years old, there will be dire consequences if departments can’t find ways to attract new, young volunteers.

“A lot of these communities could never replace the service provided by the volunteers with a paid career fire department, because it would be not financially feasible for these municipalities to do that,” Robert Timko, director of the NVFC Pennsylvania Chapter, explained.

Despite expense, inaction is no solution.

“We can’t fight a structure fire with four guys on a truck. If that’s the only truck on the road, I have to call other departments, two or three departments most of the time,” Stroudsburg Township Fire Chief William Unruh said.

“We want to make sure that we all go home at the end of the day.”

Since the 60s, volunteer fire departments have assumed wider roles — emergency medical services, hazardous materials operations, technical rescue operations — and so the cost of training firefighters has soared. These greater training standards and new federal requirements have also increased time demands for prospective volunteers.

“We have to train a little bit harder than when I joined the fire department,” Unruh said. “The essentials class was probably only 30 hours long. The fundamentals of firefighting now is at 180 hours.”

NVPA estimates the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities across the country an estimated $46 billion per year.

If you want more information on how to join your local volunteer fire department, contact

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