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The firefighter: Commitment, training and time

Sep 07, 2017 12:19PM ● Published by Steven Hoffman

Gallery: The Firefighter [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

Listed on the Townsend Fire Company's website are the names of the 139 individuals who currently serve as the company's members. Many surnames are listed more than once, indicating that the beating heart of the department has circulated deep within the veins of several generations of Austins, Baileys, Barcuses, Clarks, Demczaks and Wallaces.

One of those members listed on the website is David Hall, who has been associated with the department since 1979, and has served as a firefighter, EMT and ambulance responder and a past fire chief, and now serves president of the State Chiefs Association.

The original intention of this magazine article was to serve as a historical retrospective on the department, which traces its roots to the 1920s, but within minutes, the conversation took a distinct and revelatory turn, and began to tell a story that those who are not responders have rarely heard.

This is not just a story about David Hall, but one reflective of his colleagues, and firefighters, EMT and ambulance drivers and first responders everywhere.

The interview veered off, away from its original assignment, and became a story that needs to be told.



* * * *


It was the late summer of 2010, and the pager near David Hall's bed went off at five o 'clock in the morning.

There it was: A multi-vehicle crash on Route 1.

It was a delta call, which meant the firefighters with the Townsend Fire Department -- and other departments in the area -- had to respond to the call in less than six minutes.

He responded immediately. He was on his way.

There was no morning shower. No exercise to get the blood moving. No coffee. No breakfast.

Hall arrived at the scene of the accident fifteen minutes later, and immediately saw the tangled, metallic web of a Boar's Head truck and a tractor trailer, that had collided just minutes before. Chards of glass glistened like a bed of diamonds along the roadside.

When Hall approached the truck, he thought to himself, 'This guy's dead,' but within seconds, he heard a quiet voice coming from inside the truck.

'Help,' he heard. It was the voice of a young man.

With the assistance of other responders, Hall spent nearly two hours pulling the young man out of the truck, who was then lifted onto a helicopter and transported to Christiana Hospital, where he was treated for injuries and released. Today, the young man is living happily in California.

"I don't know what happens to the people we help after we take them to the hospital," Hall said. "We go to their house and we put their fire out. We pull them out of vehicles and give them CPR and transport them to the hospital. Then we return to our lives.

"His mother and father called me from the intensive care unit at Christiana, and they asked me what could they do for the Townsend Fire Department, because we helped save their son. I told them, 'There's no need to help us. That's what we are supposed to do. It's time to tend to your son.'

"'No,' they said. 'Our son is in the best place he can be. We want to help you.' They sent us donations, and to this day, on the anniversary of the accident, the man's mother sends us a card, thanking us for saving her son's life."

David Hall joined the Townsend Fire Department when he was 134 years old. His cousins and uncles had already joined, and the young teenager's aspirations were no more complex than to experience the thrill of riding fire trucks and putting out fires -- to get on the nozzle, as he calls it. Frequent were the long afternoons when Hall listened to the stories of the older members of the department, who would lean against fire trucks and speak glowingly of past accomplishments. He absorbed everything he could. It was the connection he longed for.

"I equate that to my father passing away when I was young, and the wish that I had to be able to spend my life helping people," he said. "Back in the day, the firehouse was deemed as the poor man's country club, but it was also the gathering place for Townsend. If we had a disaster, we opened up our building during storms. It really served as the center of everything."

Hall received his ambulance attendant certification in 1984, an accreditation that launched what has been a 37-year volunteer career as a firefighter, an EMS responder and a fire chief.

For many years, Hall and his colleague Monty Martinez averaged between 200 and 225 ambulance runs a year -- at an average of two hours per run -- while also managing to maintain 40-plus hour-a-week jobs. While he and Martinez have scaled back their hours at the station -- they still partner on Tuesday ambulance runs -- Hall realizes that the bigger issue is not the hours he's already put in, but filling the hours with trained and qualified volunteers, now and in the future.

Across America, fire, ambulance and EMT volunteers are dwindling. National Fire Protection Association statistics proclaim that while volunteers still outnumber career firefighters nearly two to one, volunteer numbers have dropped by around 11 percent since the mid-1980s.

The reasons are clear: The rise in two-income households leaves no stay-at-home parent to run the family while the volunteer commits time to the department; and the time commitment that requires many volunteers to give up precious chunks of their personal lives.

"We tell them, 'We're going to pay for your gear and your training. We just need you to give up your time,'" Hall said. "It sounds good as a soundbite, but the reality is that they wake up early for work, remain on the job until late afternoon, then come home and then back out to thier kids' activities. Right in the middle of it, we tell them that they need to be here for training for about four hours during the week, and then again on Saturdays, and when an emergency happens, we want them to leave their house and their dinner and their kids' birthday parties and come to fire...and oh, by the way, all without being paid."

Another factor that drives some volunteers away is what Hall refers to as the "bad calls," that can expose the volunteer to the shocking -- or even gruesome -- scenes during a fire or an emergency response.

"When I was fire chief, I used to tell the parents of our junior members, 'I can train your son or daughter to do this job. What I can't do is train them to handle what they are going to see or do,'" he said. "Only they will know when the time comes, if they can do it. It's a gamble. Some stick it out, and some don't."

Preparing an individual to be a volunteer is a financial and time burden on the department, as well. Equipping a volunteer at the Townsend Fire Company can cost as much as $1,800, and individual training can run $1,000.

Locking in a long-time, dependable volunteer, Hall said, comes with commitment, training and time.

"The term 'volunteer' takes on a new definition when it's applied to a fire company," he said. "If a Little League volunteer is not able to show up for baseball practice, Little Johnny is still going to be able to learn how to hit the ball, but if a volunteer for a fire department doesn't show up for a call, what burns down and who doesn't live?

"When we get a page, we know that this station is being asked to make a call, and each of our members need to make a conscious decision. 'Do I want to leave in the middle of my child's birthday party? What may potentially happen to the victim of his or her family if I do not answer this call?' These are all personal choices that we need to make."

Throughout his nearly 37 years with the Townsend Fire Company, there have been many late evenings when Hall has returned to his home -- about four miles from the station -- after having given his time, will and maximum effort in partnership with his colleagues. The stresses of the job as a firefighter and first responder rarely fold up and disappear at the driveway. Often, they take the form of a mental book of snapshots that flip through one by one while the rest of the cities and towns they serve to protect are fast asleep. Suddenly, the men and women of the firehouse aren't around anymore, but the stories and photographs are still lingering and need a place to go.

"I will have spent hours administering CPR to someone on the way to a hospital, only to arrive at the ER to hear a medical attendant say 'We have done everything possible but the patinet has passed away,'" Hall said. "I will then leave the hospital and go home, where I am expected to take the next call. We deal with tragedy and death on a daily baisis, whether it's kids or adults or older people, and we have to go home and somehow carry on.

"It's the spouses of fire and EMT people who are the real saints and heroes, not us. When I come home and I've had a bad night, my wife Barb hears everything, and she knows that tomorrow there is a likely chance that she will hear the same things, all over again. After doing this for so long, the life you chose for yourself becomes ingrained in you."

Being a member of the Townsend Fire Company is like being a member of a family, he said.

"Not everyone gets a long all the time," he said. "There are arguments and disagreements, but what connects us to each other is that when that alarm goes off, we put all of our differences aside, because we all have a job to do."

Every so often, Hall visits the company's museum room that stands as a testament to the history of a department that has stood since 1927. He points to a glass partition, behind which is well-placed tribute to Clarence Schwatka, who served as the departments' long-time fire chief, and served as a mentor to Hall and hundreds of his colleagues. No one in the history of this department, Hall said, earned the respect that Clarence did. Beside proclamataions and correspondences, a framed, black-and-white photograph of Schwatka rests in the center of the display case. From a particular angle, it appears that Schwatka makes direct eye contact with Hall and, from behind the glass, the faint illusion of a whisper can be heard.

Carry on, it says.

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