By Fran Maye
It’s 3 a.m.
Chris Keenan is awakened by a call that reports an automatic alarm. He jumps out of bed, grabs his gear and heads to the Longwood Fire Co., about a six-minute drive. He’s able to put on some of his gear on the run, hops on the truck and arrives at the scene.
Like the majority of automatic alarm calls, it’s a false alarm. Keenan heads back to the station and arrives back home a couple of hours later. Most of the time, it’s too late to get back to sleep since he goes to work in the early-morning hours.
Such is the life of volunteer firemen, often underappreciated and overworked. Collectively, they save state taxpayers more than $9 billion a year.
“Just think if (municipalities) had to pay us to do this work,” said Keenan, 44. It would break some townships. You’d be surprised at how often we go to a house and people say ‘well, this is your job.’ No, it’s not. I just got out of bed and it’s 3 in the morning, it’s not my job.”
Keenan, 44, decided to become a volunteer fireman five years ago because he simply wanted to do something for his community. He signed up, and discovered that to become certified, he needed to take many classes. He needed 150 hours of instruction. He went every weekend, and two days during the week. It took him more than six months to complete.
“It’s a big commitment,” he said. “It’s especially hard when you are working too. It’s crazy.”
The fire calls can be dangerous, but Keenan said fire calls are much safer than traffic duty.
“The most dangerous part of the job is traffic duty at night,” he said. ‘You would be surprised at how many people do not slow down when a fire truck is there. You wave your baton, but they don’t slow down. Sometimes, I don’t’ know what people are thinking.”
Going on fire calls often requires a huge time commitment.
“When we go to a fire or accident, we may be there for hours,” Keenan said. “I have spent 10 hours on one fire calls. Then we have to come back to the station and clean all the equipment, clean the hoses, test all the airpacks, test all the power equipment that as used, repack everything back on the trucks and get everything back in place for the next call.”
There’s no money in it, but being a firefighter allows entry into an exclusive brotherhood. Firefighters regard other firefighters as “family,” and often they watch sports games on TV together. In the summer months there’s often barbecues outside the firehouse. The camaraderie is intense.
Keenan’s son, Aiden, 19, who attends Penn State Brandywine campus, recently decided to become a firefighter at Longwood. And his 17-year-old daughter, a senior at Unionville High, and 16-year-old daughter, who will be a freshman at Unionville next year, are often at the fire company. His wife Jennifer, a nurse at Chester County Hospital, sometimes makes EMT runs.
“My mother is made at me (for becoming a volunteer firefighter) because she feels I’ll get hurt or burned or something,” Keenan said. “And when I got my son involved she got very upset. But I told her that you can’t sit back and wait for somebody to do it. We are here to see what we can do for our community.”
But volunteers at fire companies are becoming a dying breed.
Pennsylvania has gone from 3,000 volunteer companies with 300,000 firefighters 35 years ago to 2,345 companies and only 72,000 firefighters in 2005, according to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
And emergency calls are up, but the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped nationally by more than 10 percent over the past 20 years. According to the Pa. office of the state fire commissioner, there has been a 75 percent decline in the number of firefighters in the past four decades.
But Keenan, originally from Long Island, N.Y., sees it as helping his community. He hits about 30 percent of the more than 500 fire calls Longwood Fire Co. gets every year.
“I enjoy helping out,” he said.