AVONDALE -- It was only natural that young Russ Kilmer became a fireman at age 16. After all, his father was the chief of the local company, and the fire house was so close that he could run there when the siren went off -- or, in one case, go there on his lawn tractor.
A half century later, Kilmer, 66, is still with the Avondale Fire Company, this time as president and additionally as a Chester County fire marshal.
Last Tuesday, his fellow firefighters honored him with his 50-year pin and a large trumpet trophy, which symbolizes the early communication device fire chiefs had with their crews during fires.
As a high school student at Avon Grove in the 1960s, Kilmer and many of his friends were junior firefighters. They went to fires and company activities, but didn’t fight the actual flames.
“We did what a junior member would do: We washed the trucks, rolled the hose and helped with just about everything,” he said.
His wife, Kathy, said in addition to that, the junior members treated their stint on the company as a kind of social club as well.
“After their dates, they would go and hang out at the station later in the evening,” she said.
As the years went by he became an adult member -- a huge commitment that involved not only responding to the siren, but educating kids on safety, serving the community and going through many levels of training.
As he looked back on this years of active duty on Sunday, he said he could not pick out one “big” fire, because they were all different and there were many of them.
A fire that came to mind, however, was one that he referred to as Medford-Dulaney, that took down a whole block in Avondale where the post office is now and included a lumber yard and appliance store.
“It was in the 1960s and the snow was two-and-a-half or three feet deep. There was no electricity in the borough and people had trouble getting here. We had companies from everywhere,” he said.
He also recalled the excitement among firefighters that existed and exists to this day: getting new apparatus.
He said the public doesn’t realize how had the fire company members work to make ends meet and to finance equipment.
When they buy a new truck, “You still get excited,” he said, adding that the purchasers have many options and add-ons that are available when planning a new piece of equipment.
There are other aspects of fire fighting that are not immediately obvious to the general public.
As firefighters age, they get to a point where they are too old to engage in the actual quenching of flames. For Kilmer, that happened about 15 years ago.
That didn’t stop his activities, however.
He is now one of several Chester County fire marshals, and his area of service is loosely defined as western and southern sections of the county.
He still leaps into duty at the first call, which nowadays comes on his pager. And with a high incidence of calls -- many of them fires, he has plenty to keep him busy.
Just last week, in two days, this 66-year old attended three fires. But that’s not all.
As a fire marshal he does more than kick around the ashes and figure out whether the flames were caused by short circuits or smoking in bed. He is part of the investigatory team that cooperates with police and the federal ATF department to determine if there was criminal activity involved.
He was called to help investigate the recent Coatesville arsons and, in past years, arsons in Kennett Square and West Grove.
“It’s a lot of paper work and sometimes you know the families and feel sorry for them,” he said.
He recalled that there have been times that he was called to investigate fires that left him without sleep for consecutive nights -- a scenario known well to many in his profession.
Looking back, Kilmer said his life with the fire company and as fire marshal has made him feel close to the community and has had the community return his affection.
He said he was reading in a firefighter magazine several years ago that metal pieces of the devastated World Trade Center were available to fire companies. He called the appropriate parties and was able to get a piece of the remains for the Chester County Fire School.
He recalled another time -- around 1970 -- when members of the fire company decided to paint the trucks light green because they heard it made them more visible than red.
In that same project, they also decided to apply images of mushrooms on the doors of the trucks in honor of the local mushroom industry.
Kilmer said the mushroom companies responded in kind and have been strong supporters of the company with their gratitude.
Looking ahead in the future, Kilmer said he believes the trend toward having paid firefighters will probably come to fruition in the next 20 years or so, because it involves so much time and training.
All in all, though, he said he likes it and isn’t ready to quit anytime soon.
“There’s been a lot of changes in 50 years,” he said.