In so many ways, firefighters put the needs of others first. That's the way Tom Hartz, Sr., lived.
The former chief of Citizens Fire Company in Tamaqua passed away recently and unexpectedly after a lifetime of devotion.
By age 70, he had given over 50 years of service to the fire department and his fellow man.
Hartz embodied all that is good about firemen and his contributions to the community are beyond measure.
That's because firemen do much more than fight fires.
They respond to emergencies of all kinds. Firemen like Tom Hartz protect lives from threats so varied that few could possibly imagine. When a tanker truck overturned and spilled chemicals that threatened a waterway, firefighters were first on the scene. When a tree fell onto overhead electrical lines, causing sparks to rain down on the neighborhood, Hartz and his firemen responded in a flash. When a smell of natural gas wafted through an apartment building, firemen were first to take action.
In fact, firemen like Tom Hartz respond to emergencies that often have nothing to do with fire.
When a roofer suffered a heart attack on the job while nailing shingles high on the third floor of a downtown business, it was firemen who brought him down using their aerial ladder.
When the river roared over its banks and flooded houses along Broad, Rowe and Center streets, Tom Hartz and the firemen were there to pump out basements and ensure everyone's safety.
Yet, with all these important local duties and family responsibilities, Hartz and many other local firemen still find time to be active with county and state firefighting associations.
That description pretty much sums up the devotion of Tom Hartz. He was a man of action. The rock-solid guy everybody depended on.
He was the man everyone turned to when something needed to get done. Tom Hartz's family members supported him in the cause and some even followed in his footsteps. Most of all, Hartz recognized the special place firefighters hold in a community, a position too valuable to be left to chance.
Back in the late 1960s and 70s, Hartz crusaded for new members Citizens. He single handedly recruited young men from the neighborhood because he recognized the need to bolster membership. Time was critical, he said. Hartz knew of the inherent time lag in developing essential skills.
In other words, you don't become a firefighter simply by walking in the door and paying your dues. It's not nearly that easy and nothing can be further from the truth.
Instead, it takes years of dedication and training - and the training never stops. Tom Hartz understood it. He knew all about the sacrifice. But he knew that all fire companies need young blood in order to secure a safe future for all concerned. He also knew that the clock was ticking.
Many of those he recruited were teens still in high school. I was part of that group for a time. We joined Citizens to learn about firefighting. Everybody valued the experience. We had the privilege of a first-hand education into the broad responsibilities of a fireman. Tom Hartz helped us to acquire a deep sense of appreciation for the importance of all volunteer emergency responders. He was a strong, positive influence that way. There were so many lessons for us to learn from a man so skilled yet so humble.
Most of all, Hartz wanted us to understand that there always will be a need for new firemen. It's a perpetual cycle. Firemen grow older, he said. They need to be replaced. A very basic concept, yet so essential to our safety and well-being. So important to our survival. There comes a time when firemen need to be replaced.
But nobody will ever replace Tom Hartz.