Volunteer fire companies face challenges
ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Fran Thamarus and Chris Kegel received the Firemen of the Year award.
Rory Koons, Aquashicola Fire Company president, said the annual Christmas party held Sunday at the Blue Ridge Country Club is a token of the company's appreciation to "anyone who has helped our organization throughout the year. I hope you leave with a great feeling of fellowship."
The speaker for the evening was Mike Snyder, director, global safety, industrial hygiene and loss prevention with Dow Corning. He is with the Auburn-Williams Fire Company in Michigan since 1985. Prior to that he was with the Aquashicola company.
He graduated from Palmerton High School and Cornell University, and is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist through the National Fire Protection Association. He sponsors the Warren E. Furry Memorial scholarship at Palmerton High School. It goes to a senior who participates in volunteer emergency services.
When Koons was in the hospital following an accident, Snyder called him every Sunday evening. "I flew him in from Michigan at his expense," said Koons, eliciting laughter.
Snyder said some departments are having a tough time and others are ceasing to exist. In rare cases they are changing to paid services. Since that is unaffordable for municipalities, volunteers have to remain a central component.
Those that survive have seen a tremendous amount of change from the 1980s to the present. Computers and the Internet have led to some of the problems as people stay home more.
"A fire company used to be the center of the fabric of a community," he said, "but there is a chipping away."
Structures and vehicles have changed. Light-weight construction, new fabrics, different vehicles and high voltage equipment make firefighting more dangerous and complicated.
Snyder said Aquashicola's 1977 LaFrance with its simple engine is the easiest to use. The technology is not necessarily tried and true and maybe at -20 degrees the equipment won't work.
Members have to be dedicated to community service. How many people want to get out of bed in the middle of a cold night?
There must a commitment to fellowship which has had to expand across companies. "It used to be seen as a weakness if a company called for mutual aid. Volunteers must have a building skill set. That is what the Monday night drills are for - to keep on top of their craft.
"Good news Aquashicola. You have the right recipe," he said.
The challenge is to find more people that meet the needed quality. "We need to shake the bushes to find the gems. We have to get people thinking of fire service in high school," said Snyder.
"If we do not improve fire services we will be taxed. Medical services are going that way now," said Koons.
Peter Beblavy presented the Firemen of the Year awards to Fran Thamarus who coordinates four-county events and Chris Kegel who answers any call except medevac in the middle of the night. "Both contribute consistently and loyally," said Beblavy.
The before-dinner blessing by the Rev. Doris Bray included the words, "We are thankful for all these people who reach out in a time of need."
After dinner Koons introduced members of the audience. "Our biggest benefactor is Jeff Bartholomew. (He presented a $5,000 donation at the party. In addition to helping the fire company he helps with the swimming pool and recreation area where he donated fill for playing fields.
Harry Shoup is helping remodel the firehall after 40 years. The bathrooms will be made handicapped accessible.
Bernie Shea is always ready to help with any project and discounts purchases - "a valuable resource," said Koons.
The Horsehead Community Defense Fund has provided $80,000 over the years. William Bechdolt serves as consultant for the group.
Lower Towamensing supervisors were acknowledged: Glen Hahn, Ron Walbert and Gerry Madden. Walbert was a fireman in Allentown for 30 years, said Koons.
Walbert, board chair, said on behalf of the board he thanked the firefighters and their families.
Jason Behler, president of West End Fire Company, was there with family. Assistant chief Dennis Behler brought son Kyle along. He earned his Eagle Scout badge by erecting a sign at West End.
Norm Dotter, 92, keeps coming out, Koons said.
Jeff Hausman, a newcomer from Vigilance Co. in Slatington brought with him a passion for firefighting.
Brenda Borger helps with the filling sale that brought in $676 this year. It goes to the Blue Mountain Adult Day Care. Larry and Marie Hahn help with a filling sale at St. John's Lutheran Church. That money goes to the Katrina areas for Habitat for Humanity.
Larry Hahn is the "nuts and bolts guy" who repairs things. "I don't know what we'd do without you," Koons said.
Kerry Paules provides diesel and gas. Don Reinhard of Pencor provides cable service and in return Koons provides Pencor with fire extinguishers.
The company had a reserve fund of $180,000 saved over the past years and now used to purchase two properties next to the firehouse. A $237,000 Federal Emergency Management grant application has been submitted to purchase two new engines.