Volunteer firefighting is way of life, residents say Firehouses often serve as social center of Balto. Co. communities

September 08, 1998|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Kevin Wallett has been around volunteer firefighters his entire life. The 30-year-old captain of Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company is the son of the fire company's former president. Becoming a volunteer was a natural decision.

"There was never a doubt in my mind about volunteering. It is something I enjoy doing," said Wallett, a 14-year veteran at Owings Mills.

Wallett is among the many people around Baltimore County who view the volunteer fire station as the center of the community and volunteering as a way of life.

"The station presents a real family atmosphere. There are many people who have had five or six generations volunteer," Wallett said.

Lt. Lewrence Goldberg, a 10-year veteran at Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company and a career city paramedic, agrees.

"I've formed a lot of friendships at the station," Goldberg said. "My wife is friends with other volunteers' wives, and we'll go to places like carnivals and Ocean City together."

On a typical Friday night, volunteers at the county's 32 companies get together and fix dinner. They may wash the truck and their cars, sit and talk or watch television.

While the atmosphere might be laid-back and relaxed, that can change quickly.

"Yes, it's great to be able to go somewhere to hang out with people you know, but when that siren goes off we forget about everything except that call," said Chad Hipsley, a three-year veteran at Pikesville.

"Even if there is an argument between two volunteers, it is forgotten because if you let personal differences get in the way of a [fire] call you might end up dead."

Volunteer firefighting has been a fixture in U.S. culture for more than 100 years, in many cases providing tiny communities with a town center.

"There is a strong connection volunteers have with the company they work for, since it is usually the area they grew up in," said Mark Hubbard, battalion chief for Baltimore County Fire Department. "Volunteer firefighting is one of the last American traditions."

Although the number of volunteer firefighters is down nationwide, they still outnumber paid firefighters -- 838,000 volunteers compared with 261,000 paid. Maryland has an estimated 35,000 volunteers in 362 companies. The federal government estimates it would cost $20 billion to pay for the work of volunteers.

But recruitment is under pressure from changes in society, said Elwood Banister, former Baltimore County battalion chief and current head of Cockeysville Volunteer Fire Company.

"Twenty-five years ago, the volunteer fire company was a major community hub," said Banister, whose company, established in 1896, is the county's oldest. "Today, because society has become so transient and with the increased pressures on volunteers, people don't stay as long."

The need for such service remains. Banister noted that Cockeysville has received more than 2,500 calls this year.

"People see the sirens and the trucks racing to the scene of a fire and they love that, but many just can't comprehend all the other ingredients needed to volunteer, like the training, certification and fund raising," Banister said. "All of these things take time, and I feel that is a major cause for turnover today."

The tradition remains strong, with each company contributing to its community in a different way.

Middle River Ambulance Company, which has the only underwater rescue unit in the county, responded with an educational campaign after a 1988 accident in which a woman and three children died after her car crashed into a frozen quarry.

Volunteers went to area elementary schools and talked about the dangers of ice.

"We saw what happened to that family and we wanted to do our best to prevent that from happening again. This is where we live so there is added incentive to help those in the community," said Robert Pedrick, a former chief at Middle River, whose stepson also volunteers.

Whether it is a crab feast at Middle River Ambulance Company or a birthday party for children in Pikesville, volunteer fire companies are very visible.

"Hosting birthday parties does give us positive exposure to youths at a young age, but it is also fun for them," Goldberg said. "There have been times when people have seen what we do and want to be a part of it."

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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