In our book, The Story of Kennett, two of the most powerful things we discovered were; People feel safe and secure in Kennett and that is a big part of Kennett’s strengths, and secondly, a secret sauce that makes this such a great community is the culture of volunteerism.
We found it takes about 2,000 volunteers to make all the good stuff happen for local programs like After-the-Bell, the Garage, the Kennett YMCA, YoungMoms, and Together for Education. In response Joan and I have been donating all the earnings from our book to the Kennett Education Foundation and Kennett High School for an award to the student who best exemplifies the Spirit of Kennett-- someone who understands how volunteering can change the world.
It is unfortunate that in writing our book, we left out counting almost 250 super volunteers- the fire fighters who keep us safe. To paraphrase George Orwell; All volunteers are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
When the Twin Towers came down on 9/11, tens of thousands of people’s lives were saved but we lost 343 firefighters. We are protected by our own heroes in Southern Chester County where six fire companies (Oxford, West Grove, Avondale, Kennett, Longwood and PoMarLin) have about 250 EMS and firefighters.
These men and women are on call day and night to protect us. Pennsylvania had 2,448 fire departments in 2005 and 96% were 100% staffed by volunteers. Today, the Kennett area has gone mostly to paid staff for EMS, but our fire services are predominately volunteers.
Pennsylvania is the home of Ben Franklin and the Union Fire Company of 1736, the first truly volunteer fire department. This volunteer model is financially very effective, but it has been hard hit by reduced volunteerism as we have gone from 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the U.S. in 1976 to 72,000 just 30 years later. We lost 228,000 volunteers and grew 80 million residents. Then there is the rise in cost of the equipment, technology and training a more skilled and educated fire company.
Fire departments always had a funding issue. Ten years ago, Kennett had Bingo on Wednesday nights. The chief told me; “You didn’t want to have a heart attack or a home fire on a Wednesday night back then.”
My family moved to New Garden Township in 1990 and a few years later a man collapsed from a heart attack on the tennis court next door. I gave him CPR until the ambulance came, which took about 25 minutes. For the last 20 minutes, I was saying to myself “Where are they?” The man died.
Since then the EMS services have gone to mostly paid staff and improved response times. I was helping a friend cut down some oak tree limbs in my front yard a few years ago. I ended up falling 25 feet after one of the limbs hit the road, bounced and then hit the ladder. The fall crushed my femur and vertebrae but this time it only took 15 minutes before I was on my way to Christiana’s Level-1 Trauma Center for a new titanium femur, and back surgery.
To get a better understanding of the history of the fire service I talked to two super volunteers, high school classmate Ralph Hunter and his friend Tom Glass. Tom started dreaming of being a firefighter when he was about four, joined the station at 18 years old, working his way up to Fire Chief in Kennett. He was proud that he was Chief the year they burned the first mortgage of the new firehouse.
He is retired now but still works with the West Grove Fire Department. His wife works as a volunteer and does a lot of the outreach. The Avon Grove School District calls her “Fire Lisa.” I cannot confirm that Tom’s pager went off at his wedding reception but he would have taken the call. Getting your wife to drive the fire engine with you may be one solution to becoming an enthusiastic volunteer.
I asked Tom if we are safer today and he said smoke detectors have helped a lot. But the old houses and buildings were solid wood and you would have a good 10 minutes to get out of a burning house. Today’s materials are so much more flammable. You can have just a few minutes from when a fire starts to when it is consuming the entire house.
Fire departments are asked to do so much more today. They are trained on active shooter and how to respond to an anthrax scare. Tom said there are not as many cats in the tree situations. Climate change is driving more forest fires and there is flooding we have never seen before. I asked what metric he used for success and he said; “Everyone went home.” The safety of his crew comes first.
The Kennett area’s six municipalities are responding to these changes and have set up a board (The Kennett Fire and EMS Legal Commission Inc.) that is dealing with the collaboration of the three departments and emergency services. I interviewed Scudder Stevens who represents Kennett Township on the Commission. He recently came back from a statewide meeting of township supervisors to report that much of the state is still trying to address the problems of an all-volunteer EMS service.
In summary, we need to thank these super volunteers and support the emergency services that keep us safe and save lives. Moreover, they are saving the Kennett area hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in labor costs. I assume there will be pressure on surrounding communities to collaborate, as municipalities are legally responsible for providing these services and they are not getting cheaper.
We need to thank the leadership of our municipalities. With EMS resourcing largely behind us, South Eastern Chester County is in the vanguard of managing safety services and addressing the funding issues.
"The Story of Kennett – Shaping the future one child at a time" Bob George and Joan Holliday's book on Kennett may be purchased on Amazon and at the Mushroom Cap or Resale Book Shoppe in Kennett. You can contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.