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Column: It Takes More Than Water to Fight Fire

Long Valley Patch's editor tries out firefighting.

We come home from a long day of work, spend time with our families, have some dinner and collapse into the couch before retiring to bed on most nights.

It’s a wonderful feeling, being able to unwind and forget about responsibilities for a few hours before reengaging in the rat race the following morning.

But what if you came home from a 10-hour workday, and as you were throwing on your pajamas, you learned it was time to jet out the door and potentially save someone’s life?

No, we’re not talking about intertwining Clark Kent’s day job and his secret identity as Superman. We’re referring to the unsung, volunteer heroes we have right here in Washington Township.

You know them as firefighters.

I decided to start a column this summer titled A Day in the Life, where I would spend time with various organizations and people in Washington Township who do much more than meets the residents’ eye. And there was no better way to kick it off then with our neighbors who put their lives on the line every day for us.

The Washington Township Fire Department consists of three companies; the Fairmount Fire Company, the Schooley’s Mountain Fire Protection Association, and the Long Valley Fire Company. Because of the town’s vast geographic size–46 square miles–it’s imperative to have firefighting personnel spread throughout the municipality for the sake of speedy response time.

What many members of the public do not know, though, is that every single member–from the chief of each company to the newest firefighter on the squad–is a volunteer. Each one of these men and women (there are three active females in the department) leave their home, their family, their personal life, the second a call is made, and sacrifice him or herself to keep a neighbor from danger.

All without earning a dime.

I spent a couple hours of my Tuesday night with the volunteers during their monthly barrel fight drill at Fairmount Fire Company on Parker Road. Volunteer representatives from Chester, the three Washington Township companies and Califon were on hand to take part in the event.

Because the drill is used for training purposes and isn’t an actual emergency, members are invited to bring their families and have some barbecue food. But after a few minutes of mingling and socializing, it was time to get to work.

Teams of three were constructed to compete against each other in each barrel fight. A steel barrel hung on a zip line between two poles, and would be sprayed with water on opposite ends by each team. The team that was able to push the barrel to the other side was the winner. Essentially, it was a water hose tug of war, but with pushing rather than pulling.

But that’s being kind. Let’s set the stage.

You were up at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, readying yourself for your day job. Then, you went to work all day, and returned home around 5 p.m. The barrel fight began at 7:30 p.m.

OK, so we’ve all been tired and pushed through. Sure.

Tuesday’s temperatures peaked around 90 degrees, and didn’t drop below 80 until well after the sun went down. Now it’s hot and humid. Remember, though, the purpose of performing a drill is to reenact what a real life situation is like. So, you have to wear your firefighting gear.

Each member needed to strap on waterproof boots attached to fire retardant pants, with a jacket and helmet, amounting to roughly 10 pounds of gear. This drill–fortunately–didn’t require an oxygen tank strapped to your back.

I had the opportunity to suit up and take part in one of the ‘fights’. When I arrived at the fire company, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and I was still sweating. Now throw on the gear and hold a hose strong enough to push a single person to the ground (remember, there were teams of three), and compete for up to five minutes or until one team won, whichever came first.

When my team finished the drill (we lost on distance, but didn’t allow for the barrel to reach our pole), I was dripping sweat. I couldn’t get the gear off fast enough, and it took a few minutes to catch my breath.

And that was just one drill.

Matt Slack, a member of the Fairmount Fire Company, took part in four drills, often operating the nozzle position–the person most responsible for the hose’s direction. Slack also worked an eight-hour day at his full-time job. But he competed in the drills because that’s what he signed up for when he became a volunteer firefighter.

When I got home that night and laid in bed, I had the reassurance that my night was over. I knew I’d sleep until the morning, then go about my daily work and life routines. The volunteer firefighters from our area, though, don’t have that certainty. As they go home, spend time with their families and finally get a chance to relax, their pagers could go off with an emergency that they need to respond to.

Unfortunately, membership is down across the department, according to various members.

“It’s tough to devote the time when you’ve got a job, a family, kids,” said Fairmount Fire Company Vice President Rich Mistkowski. “Not to mention all the training you need to do before becoming a firefighter and the training you need to do while being a member. It’s a huge time commitment.”

Aside from memberships being down, funding has grown stagnant as well. While the volunteers conduct different fundraising events like pancake breakfasts, donations in a tough economy have slowed considerably, Mistkowski said.

Recently, a group of volunteers from the Long Valley company responded to a call, but had an engine break down just a few feet from the Fairview Avenue building. Fortunately, the company’s second engine was able to transport the members to the call.

The time I spent with the volunteers was something I won’t soon forget. The group is made of the gritty and friendly, but they all have one thing in common: They’re willing to risk their lives for the safety of others.

And they ask for nothing in return except for the support of their neighbors and township.

judi July 14, 2011 at 11:13 AM
Thanks to all the Washington Township Fire Depts. for keeping us safe and all the sacrifices you make to keep us that way. As a resident of Washington Township I appreciate all that you do...THANKS AGAIN !!!!
Tracy Tobin July 14, 2011 at 02:20 PM
Jason just touched the "tip of the iceburg" to use a cliche. The fire companies have other drills on a regular basis that are not as much "fun" as the barrel drill. The last time I checked, the basic fire fighters training requirement was 120 unpaid hours. Additional hours and practical experience are needed to advance beyond the basic level. There are monthly drills and joint practices, equipment maintenance and cleaning (especially after a fire), mutual aid assisting other towns, etc. Unfortunately a lot of residents have moved to Washington Township from larger cities where there are full time paid fire departments, and they do not know that most of semi-rural New Jersey are all volunteer departments. With the increased cost of equipment, repairs, mandated changes in personal safety equipment , etc. combined with reduced State funding and Grants the fire budgets are stressed along with all municipal budgets. Large portions of our town do not have fire hydrants, meaning water to fight fires has to be transported to the scene of the fire. That means pumpers and tank truck resupplied by shuttle runs between the nearest water source, which may be a river or pond. Every family in town contributing the cost of a four person dinner at a restaurant to the fire company protecting their area would be a good way to help support a key element of family safety in our town. Tracy Tobin

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