DISCLAIMER: This article is intended to shine a light on Lawrence Township’s volunteer firefighters. It is not steeped in facts and data, and will most likely disappoint some people because it omitted certain information (about people, organizations, etc.) that a reader may feel should have been included in it. For these reasons, my apology is offered even before you read it! It’s my hope that the readers accept this article for how it was intended and not for what it omits.

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“What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.”—Aristotle (2300 years ago).

I considered several topics for this month’s column, but landed on one that highlights incredibly important people in our community, and discusses one of our most difficult challenges we face as a community.

Volunteering is defined as “the policy or practice of giving one’s time or talents for charitable, educational or other worthwhile activities, especially in one’s community.”

When you add “willing to leave your home and family at all hours of the night and early morning at a moment’s notice and risk your life to save others,” that would be the definition of a volunteer firefighter.

In present day all the way back to the founding of our township in 1697, we have been blessed with residents who have given their time, effort and talents to our community in a variety of ways.

These people are difference makers. They are the secret ingredient that makes Lawrence a special place to live. You know who you are, and you are appreciated. But, to be honest, the volunteer firefighter is the one community volunteer that rises above all others and serves the community day in and day out without fanfare or with the appreciation they truly deserve.

We have three volunteer fire companies in our town: Slackwood Fire Company (Station #21) (slackwoodfirecompany.org) was founded on Nov. 1, 1906; Lawrence Road Fire Company (Station #22) (lawrenceroadfire.com) was founded on May 1, 1914; and Lawrenceville Fire Company (lawrencevillefire.org) was founded on May 3, 1915.

For more than 100 years now, firefighters from each of these companies (mostly residents) have been doing the “work”(without pay) responding to calls for service providing assistance and risking personal safety, at times, for us.

In current times, our town does have career firefighters (i.e. paid) that provide protection to us Monday through Friday for the day-time shift, and the volunteers cover the evening and early morning hours during the week and all day and night on weekends.

Before I took over as municipal manager, I sat down with my predecessor (Richard Krawczun) and discussed some of the challenges I would be facing. He told me that my number one challenge will be providing effective fire service to the community with a combination of a career firefighters and our volunteer fire companies.

Our town (just like many others throughout the country) is experiencing a significant decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters. Simply put, the new generation of young men and women no longer seek to serve their community in this way (for reasons we can all debate at some other time) and, as a result, those that still meet the calling to serve are asked to give more. And the decreasing numbers present concerns that persist and must be substantively addressed.

To say that our volunteer fire companies are a community “asset” is an understatement I cannot adequately stress enough. Crunching the numbers, I asked our CFO (Peter Kiriakatis) to estimate for me what it would cost our taxpayers if we had to transition from our current 1/3 career 2/3 volunteer shift coverage to completely career firefighters.

He told me that it would be somewhere in the range of $2.5 million to start and it would only grow from there. Let’s take that number back for the past 20 years. Can you imagine how much these volunteer fire companies have saved our town financially?

In a post a while back, I set forth a list of all of the services that a resident taxpayer receives from our municipal government to show how much one actually receives for the amount you pay in MUNICIPAL taxes (not school tax or county tax).

I included in the services, 24 hour fire protection. Someone responded and challenged my list by saying that she thought fire protection was by volunteers, and that she had no idea that fire service was a part of our municipal budget.

Well, of course it is. Our town owns and maintains the fire company buildings, the fire apparatus, the equipment used by all of our firefighters, and pays for their training. But thankfully, the cost to our taxpayers is greatly reduced by the existence of our volunteer companies.

Since I took over as municipal manager, I have made clear to all that I firmly support and respect our volunteer fire companies and firefighters. With the green light from our elected officials, I have taken a variety of steps that show this support in the hope that we maintain and can grow the volunteer membership, and to let them know we appreciate them always.

In addition to our recent purchase of two fire apparatus at a cost of more than $1 million, our 2019 budget dedicated $300,000 towards renovations within the fire company building that will directly benefit the membership to improve their surroundings when they are in the building and away from their families.

To give them a sense of pride and comfort. We are also starting a “pay-per-call” program that will provide each firefighter with a small stipend to be paid to them in June and December of each year for each call they respond to—to name a couple of things.

With the renovation money budgeted, we also hope to improve the halls for the fire companies so they can be used by our community (for a fee that goes to the fundraising efforts of the fire company) like years past.

These are the community’s buildings and we should open them to the community again to support our volunteer fire companies. The interaction between residents with our volunteers would be priceless; and maybe prompt residents to become a member.

Growing up in Lawrence, I have very fond memories of going to the fire house halls for events both charitable and private.

Who remembers the pancake breakfasts? We can and should bring this back, and we are working on doing this with the support of our elected officials.

There may come a day when the town has to transition to a full-time career firefighting department. But that day is not today.

For now, though, we will do all we can to grow membership in our volunteer companies and we can all support them. To be candid, the volunteer membership and I have had our differences along the way over what is and isn’t “supporting them,” and I am realistic enough to know and understand that it will probably occur in the future too.

My fiduciary responsibility is to the entirety of the community and, at times, that doesn’t coincide well with the fire company’s views and objectives. But make no mistake about it, I respect each and every one of them for what they do for our community, and I will always make decisions in good faith and after careful consideration.

I encourage you to visit the websites of these fire companies and see their history and view the photos of their calls to service.

If you have an interest in becoming a member, do not hesitate to contact one of the three fire companies and arrange for meeting and visit the fire house.