By Steven Hoffman
When Brian Kelley started volunteering at Oxford's Union Fire Company No. 1 in 2000, three or more people would submit applications to join as volunteers each month. It was a good thing, too, because the residential growth in the area was making it a much more daunting task to cover the territory—92 square miles, one of the largest districts for one fire company in Chester County.
Today, Kelley is the fire chief of a company that averages about 600 calls a year. Oxford, like many volunteer companies, struggles to maintain enough volunteers to provide the fire protection that is necessary.
“It's been very busy,” Kelley said during an interview in his office in June. “There is a lot of time and effort that goes into running a firehouse. We can use all the help that we can get.”
The streets of Oxford Borough are lined with hydrants, but the remainder of the district—a vast majority of those 92 square miles—relies on other water supply sources, such as ponds, streams, and tankers. This makes a fire call more labor-intensive, so more men and women are needed. Oxford firefighters also respond to many mutual aid calls for neighboring fire companies.
“We run a good, steady crew,” Kelley said. “On a working fire we can get up to 50 active members who respond. And we're lucky to have as many people as we do.”
Many hands may make light work in some instances but when it comes to battling blazes there is no such thing as light work. When the fire alarm goes off, lives sometimes hang in the balance. In Oxford, most of the fire calls are responses to accidents or routine fire alarms. But several times a month they will get a call about a house fire and some family’s whole world is in jeopardy.
“That’s what we’re here to do,” Kelley said. “That's the job.”
Volunteer firefighters accept the responsibility of answering the call whenever an alarm goes off. During a regular fire call, the local company has four minutes to respond before the call gets re-dispatched. That gives the company two more minutes to answer before a call goes out to a neighboring company. For building fires, two companies automatically get dispatched right away.
Rich Terry, who has been active with the fire company for 44 years, said that the members take great pride in being there when there’s a fire call.
“It's ingrained in all the members,” Terry said. “We know that we need to answer that call.”
On a Sunday morning in April, as Kelley was out enjoying some time off with his young son, he heard a report about fire showing in the rear of a two-story building in the heart of Oxford's business district. A fire had broken out at the Odds & Ends building, the home to more than a dozen vendors. Union Fire Company No. 1 of Oxford was quickly joined by engines from West Grove and Rising Sun, Maryland because of fears that the fire would spread to other buildings in the downtown.
“Third Street is a fire that we don’t want,” Kelley said, explaining that the buildings are so close together that if the fire isn’t controlled it will quickly spread. “You’d be amazed at how many people live in the apartments up there.”
Fortunately, the fire officials do everything possible to prepare for events like this. Each summer they do a walk-through of alleys in the town. They knew the layout of the buildings. They knew where the hydrants were located. As other neighboring fire companies responded to lend their support, Oxford's fire officials were able to coordinate their efforts.
“There’s a lot of training that goes into that street,” Kelley said. “And when this fire broke out the mutual aid companies set up perfectly.”
The first call went out at about 11 o'clock in the morning. By 12:42 in the afternoon, the fire was under control.
The quick and successful response illustrates the importance of a good volunteer fire company. But without a sufficient number of volunteers, fire companies like Oxford wouldn’t be able to provide adequate fire protection. There was a time when these companies provided all-volunteer fire and ambulance service but Oxford and many other companies in Chester County have long ago been forced to make a change to a paid ambulance service because staffing became impossible.
“Daytime is when we're most short,” Kelley said. “If you listen around the county when calls come in, a lot of companies are trying to find enough drivers and people to respond to a call.”
“The greatest need for volunteers in the daytime,” Terry agreed. “We're very fortunate that we have some people who work swing shift and we're fortunate that we have some retired people here who can help out in the daytime.”
As fire chief, Kelley spends upwards of 40 hours per week at the firehouse. It's not uncommon for volunteer members to spend 20 or 25 hours each week fighting fires, taking care of the equipment, or training.
Terry said that an important part of what keeps him involved with the company is the other volunteers and the relationships that develop.
“It's the people that you work with,” he said. “We have a lot of great people here. It's a second family for all of us.”
Kelley said that it’s hard to be away from his family, but the families of the members understand the importance of the jobs that they are doing.
“My wife is very understanding,” Kelley said. “She encourages me to continue to do what I do here. Whenever I get a chance, I’m up here. I like working with all these people.”
While the demands are high, many members who join a fire company end up serving for decades because it gets into your blood. Men and women of all ages can help out, and Kelley said that there are some longtime members like Terry, Lonnie Brown, and Steve Gray who are invaluable to the fire company.
“Whenever you need them, those guys are still out there doing whatever you need,” he said.
Volunteer firefighters often join in the beginning because a family member introduces them to it and instills in them a sense of duty. Kelley's grandfather was a past fire chief in Newark, Del. and that made it almost inevitable that he would join a fire company, too.
“I've always wanted to do this,” Kelley said. “This is where I live. If I don't come, who is going to do it?”
Terry was one of those people who developed respect for firefighters and firefighting at a very young age.
“I can remember, as a young kid in Oxford, looking at all the equipment, and just being amazed,” he said.
Part of the job for fire company members is to train the next generation of people who will take over the duties. Oxford has a very active junior-member program and they attempt to recruit high school students to get involved. Junior members can start at the age of 16 and they can provide valuable assistance to the firefighters on the scene of a fire.
“They can be an extra set of hands for us,” Kelley said.
“We have a great group of junior members. They are a hardworking bunch,” explained Terry, noting that each junior member is assigned to work with a senior member as they learn the ropes.
Kelley said that the fire company currently has six or eight junior members, but there are ten more who are between the ages of 20 and 25.
Kelley said that training is a paramount concern for anyone who responds to fire calls. There are certifications that are required to ride on the apparatus and additional instruction for those who will be entering burning buildings. Experienced firefighters continually receive training so that they know how to properly use all the equipment and newer firefighters will often receive guidance from the veterans.
“We really try to accommodate their training,” Kelley said. “They are required to have 24 hours of in-house training each year. That training tells them how the Union Fire Company operates.”
There are times when, no matter how much preparation takes place, things go wrong. There’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of charging into a burning building. Earlier this year, Kelley received a call that one of the firefighters, Tim McDonnel, had been injured trying to battle a blaze. He was in a burning building trying to find a basement access point when he fell head-first into a furnace. McDonnel was quickly rescued and taken to the hospital where he was treated and released the next day.
Kelley described the concern that was felt by the entire Oxford fire company family during the ordeal.
“It feels like it’s your family member who is in danger when you’re in that situation,” Kelley explained. “They are your brother or your sister out there.”
Not everyone will want to respond to fire or ambulance calls, of course. Kelley said that the fire company needs volunteers for a variety of activities, including the weekly bingo games and the regular fundraisers that the company holds.
“There are a lot of volunteer opportunities,” Terry explained. “You don’t have to fight fires. There’s a job for you.”
“In our application, we like to find out what you want to do,” Kelley said.
Applications are available on the website at www.oxfordfire.com. Terry also said that anyone interested in volunteering can stop by the firehouse on Market Street on a Monday night when the firefighters are usually training.
What keeps Terry and the other longtime and dedicated members involved is the knowledge that they are providing an important service to the community.