HEILWOOD — That day almost three decades ago is indelibly etched in Pine Township Fire Company Chief Keith Muir’s memory, one that had some wondering if the department had a tomorrow.
It was Jan. 31, 1991, when a fire broke out in Station 570 itself, a blaze that gutted the equipment storage room and garage and forced frantic firefighters to hastily roll the department’s five firetrucks out into the cold before they were damaged.
Emotional firefighters that day vowed to rebuild, and they did. With their restored base of operations, Pine Township VFC was revived. It thrived, and in the following years enjoyed days so strong in support with “more people than we knew what to do with,” as Muir recalled this morning.
Today, though, Station 570’s very existence is threatened by a trouble they wouldn’t have imagined just 10 years ago.
One-time membership pushing 25 active men and women has dwindled to a roll call of just 10, and barely five to seven who now reliably respond to emergency calls for help in Pine Township, Muir said.
Muir has put out the department’s own emergency call for help now and is depending on the township, its estimated 1,928 people, and maybe even spirited individuals from beyond Pine’s borders to bolster the department’s roster.
The target date is Dec. 31 for folks to step up.
“If we get manpower, then we’re going to stay,” Muir said. “If I don’t get the manpower, we’re going to end up closing the doors.”
What Muir worries about is the stress on the members who answer every call. Every time. At all hours.
The reality potential fire department members need to know is that the danger, or the allure, of urgently suiting up and dashing out to save lives and property makes up a small fraction of a volunteer’s work as a member. Maybe half of one’s time is devoted to training — for example the 200-plus hour course required for basic firefighter certification. And the members log hours upon hours in fundraising work, for everything from paying the monthly light bill to updating the department with new trucks and the latest equipment.
That hasn’t seemed to be the top struggle. On the department’s Facebook page is a heartfelt message of thanks to community supporters and VFC members, dated just after noon Saturday, announcing that the submarine sandwich fundraiser was finished with all the product sold out at distribution points in Heilwood and Strongstown.
That message is one scroll below the dire message company officials posted Monday evening, laying out the manpower emergency confronting residents and spelling out the very specific consequences of shutting down the company.
Help will have to come from somewhere, likely a taxpayer funded contract to bring in responders from outside the township, and a spike in homeowner insurance rates if the township doesn’t have help at the ready.
Muir said the department already has backup help being dispatched on every 911 call for 570, but the Cherryhill Township and Nicktown fire departments, who now help most often, can’t be burdened long term with multiplying their basic service area.
Muir said the Heilwood department’s problem isn’t unlike that of other service organizations of this region. Longtime members fade away. Youthful members go to college and often never return to the township.
“Life happens,” Muir conceded.
Muir, 47, has been a member 30 years and the chief for nearly 20 years. He answers fire calls when he’s not driving for Krevel Trucking.
The Pine Township population, generally not an economically thriving base, Muir said, has other worries in life.
The company’s barebones crew faces further question. Its youngest are some 17-year-old junior members now in training.
It’s oldest, Al Ludwig, is 67.
But Muir holds him as an example of where the township could broaden its ranks.
Ludwig joined just five years ago.
“After he retired is when I got him,” Muir said. “He came to my house to buy a gun raffle ticket and I asked him, since he was just retired, if he’d be interested. He said ‘I can probably do that,’ and he’s been with us ever since.
“I can use anybody. And that man is the most loyal and give-you-110-percent person I have ever seen.”
Building membership on all fronts is needed. The Pine Township company would welcome more folks to join the sub sandwich assembly line every month or to hawk raffle tickets or to help clean apparatus and equipment after emergency calls.
Finding emergency responders — spirited people willing to sacrifice some hunting or camping trips or even ones who could depart from their pool or darts leagues and turn their attention to their neighbors and community, as their Facebook post suggests — would go the farthest to spell the fatiguing crew.
“I can honestly say we have not scratched a call. I want that straight out front,” said Muir. “We have not missed a call in this township. We might be very, very short on manpower but we will get someone there and we will start the process.
“There are certain calls when what I got is just fine. And there are other calls when I need what we have plus whatever else we can get plus another department. If it was a house fire right now, we would never have enough people for ourselves to fight a house fire. We haven’t done that in years, though. So we have alarm plans to make everything work.”
Anyone interested in serving the Pine Township Volunteer Fire Company can follow the department’s Facebook page or contact the fire station at (814) 948-4438 to reach an officer.