Volunteer Spirit Burns Brightly Within Firefighter's Heart

December 30, 1990

Tony Coliano wears two hats at the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company.

One is a fireman's hat. As a 15-year veteran at the department, Coliano is among those who answers emergency calls handled by the fire company.

Like Coliano, volunteers John Gallagher, Steven McCole and Donald Reed, all of Bel Air, also pull double duty at the company.

The extra duty the four men have taken on is recruiting new volunteer firefighters to keep filling the company's hats and answering the growing number of fire, ambulance and rescue calls the fire department receives.

The four volunteers are members of the fire company's recruitment and retention committee, a group formed last year to address concerns that the department would not have enough members to meet demands for its services.

"We're planning for the future," said Coliano, chairman of the committee. "We know that in five years calls are going to increase. We need people to handle that."

While balancing the volunteer demands of the fire company, 41-year-old Coliano must meet the needs of his family and business. He has four children and owns Festival Spirits, Wine and Deli in Bel Air. But the call of duty is a priority.

"You hear the alarm bell go off and you feel the commitment," Coliano said. "You go."

The Bel Air fire company, on Hickory Avenue, is one of the busiest volunteer departments in Maryland.

In 1989, the company handled 990 fire and ambulance calls, according to department statistics. The company has received 889 calls so far this year.

At the time the recruiting committee was formed, the company was facing stagnation in its membership growth and an increase in service calls, said Payson Getz, president of the company.

Company administrators agreed that the department had to get more members -- and retain its current members -- if they wanted to continue operating on a volunteer basis, Getz said.

That's when the committee got to work.

Together, the men publish advertisements to attract new volunteers, operate an answering service to take calls from prospective members and keeps their eyes and ears open for residents who express an interest in the department.

"We don't come out with a lot of flashiness," Coliano said. "We just go slow and keep bringing them in."

The committee has met its challenge, while many volunteer companies throughout the country are struggling to get enough members to put a crew out on the road to answer service calls.

Coliano said the fire company has received 89 new members since the committee started its work. The company now has 152 people on its roster.

Getz said the company had about 125 members before the committee was formed, but some of them have since retired, quit or moved out of the Bel Air area.

"I don't know whether we are extremely fortunate or someone is just smiling on us," committee member Gallagher said.

When a citizen joins the department, the new recruit has to go through hours of training and orientation, Gallagher said.

Basic training for firefighters takes 108 hours and emergency-medical training takes 110 hours, Gallagher said. The training programs are required by the state.

Committee members routinely check on the new members as they go through training to ease any problems they might have with the sessions, Gallagher said.

Equally important to recruiting new members is retaining current members and the committee has taken on that responsibility, too, Gallagher said.

The committee is developing a questionnaire that will be given to company members to determine whether they see any problems that must be corrected within the department, Gallagher said.

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