Clichés become that way for a reason.
“If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“When everyone else is running out, they go running in.”
For volunteer firefighters, those clichés are, well … as true as the sky is blue. Even if a raging fire has turned that sky black.
Fighting fires isn’t for everyone, as I learned on Wednesday night during two hours with the Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1, especially when you’re not being paid.
You mean I’m risking my life because I want to? For the men and women of Baldwin Independent: absolutely.
Wednesday night marked the fourth time this year that I volunteered as a Patch editor to help out a local organization.
Patch is all about serving communities, so much so that the company pays its employees for time spent volunteering for local charities five times per year. Patch also gives 5 percent of its ad inventory to charities. It's all part of what the company calls its Give 5 effort.
My first Give 5 day was Feb. 17 when I gave time at the Baldwin Borough Municipal Complex. That was the day that I met "Superman" Ray Benson. Next up was April 15 when I went to the Whitehall Church of Christ to assist a branch of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Then, on July 14, I helped the Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders by measuring the inside of Caste Village Commons for an upcoming fundraiser.
The most recent Give 5 day (actually set for Sept. 15 but pushed back six days due to scheduling issues) was quite different. This time, my vounteering was more of a learning experience than actually being a helping hand.
I don’t think that I helped the Baldwin Independent firefighters much during a training session that they had at W.R. Paynter Elementary School on Wednesday night. But I hope that I’m about to. Perhaps writing about my experience with the fire team for a night will shed some light on what these men and women do to keep area residents safe. If anything, this article might lead to more manpower for the group and perhaps even some worthy donations.
After all, despite risking life and limb for no pay, the Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1 runs entirely off of grants and donations, and exists solely on the strength of both firefighting and auxiliary volunteers.
I met Captain Bill Connors at the Baldwin municipal grounds at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The team has been parking its trucks there while a new parking area is constructed at its station along Churchview Avenue.
Since we’re about the same height, Connors lent me his gear for the night, including boots, pants with suspenders, jacket, gloves and red captain’s helmet. Wearing a red hat on my “first day” got me razzed a bit. I should have been wearing a black helmet, as it turns out, since I would probably be considered a “probationary” firefighter at best.
Speaking of clichés … Man, are those clothes heavy. And for good reason: They’re supposed to keep you safe from flames and excessive heat. After only about five minutes, let’s just say that the perspiring began. And that was before Connors set me up with an air tank, which added about 30 more pounds onto my 60-70-pound gear.
Make no mistake; the team wasn’t just having fun with me. This is what they wear.
“Don’t keep that (ari) tank too snug to your shoulders,” firefighter Kelly Nort said. “You want to keep that weight around your waist more so that your shoulders are free to swing an ax or carry a hose.”
Are you kidding me?
For the record, carrying an ax or a hose might add another 70 pounds.
I’m not a small guy—about 6-foot-3—so I can’t imagine what Nort must go through. Not only is she the only female firefighter that she knows of in the Baldwin-Whitehall area, she’s also not the tallest—5-foot-2 being my best estimate.
“Maybe one other girl down in South Baldwin, but that’s about all,” Nort said about fellow female firefighters in the area. “... And it’s harder the shorter that you are.”
Nort will become a Jankowski soon. She is engaged to fellow Baldwin firefighter Matt Jankowski. The couple moved to Whitehall Borough recently from north Baldwin but maintains its affiliation with Baldwin Independent.
Size and gender aside, Nort is subject to the same tests that the other firefighters are. So far, she has passed them all. And proving doubters wrong has been her motivation.
“I did it because nobody thought that I could do it,” Nort said about becoming a firefighter. “ … They all doubted me. They laughed. I did it. It’s hard.”
After putting on Connors’ gear—the air tank was added later—I hopped into a crowded fire truck next to fireman Tom Hamilton, and we headed to Paynter Elementary for a weekly practice session.
The team stays prepared by running through weekly routines such as this, checking their gear as well as area hydrants. And, of course, they stay fresh on protocol and technique.
We arrived at Paynter a short time later and were met by other members of the team. Hamilton and I went to the closest hydrant to start pumping water to the truck. We had a little trouble with one of the wrenches, which is a good example of why the team practices. It seemed like the wrench was a little worn, and a newer one was brought in.
Once the water started flowing, the firefighters took turns handling the hose, shooting water onto a grassy area next to Paynter. Sometimes, another firefighter stood behind him or her to brace the kickback that you get by discharging the hose. Other times, you’re on your own.
I thought that I handled it well enough, having fired guns before, but what truly threw me (literally) was the kick forward that you receive when you turn the hose off. I wasn’t expecting that.
Connors and the crew stressed how important it is to hang onto an active fire hose. If that thing were to slip out of my hands, the bouncing, pressure-packed tube would be bad news for everyone.
After having enough of the hose, fireman Christian Krantz, just 18 and a recent Baldwin High School graduate, asked me if I was afraid of heights.
“No, just falling,” I said.
That was good enough for Krantz, who took me up about 75 feet in a bucket at the end of a ladder attached to the top of the water truck. Krantz had the controls on the way up, but he let me do a tiny bit of steering once we reached maximum height at our angle.
The bucket is used for the obvious—to help reach fires on the top floors of burning buildings and to assist in rescue efforts.
What’s not so obvious is how Krantz is so calm and collected for an 18 year old, and so knowledgeable about the equipment, but he explained that he’s been around firefighters his whole life. In fact, his father, Mike, whom he lives with on Baldwin’s Joseph Street, is the fire chief.
When the bucket returned to the truck, my day was pretty much through, but I learned a lot more about the firefighters over the next half-hour or so of interviews, including the ride back to the municipal complex.
All of Baldwin’s firemen and women have regular jobs that keep them busy during most of the day, but still, each of them commits time to being ready to run into a burning building when called upon.
Connors, who grew up on Joseph and now lives on Baldwin’s Pleasantvue Drive, explained that every fireman and woman at the station keeps a specially programmed radio/pager on him or her that alerts of emergencies in the north Baldwin area and its neighboring communities—including Mt. Oliver and Brentwood boroughs, among others.
“Our reputation’s good enough that they count on us,” Connors said of the neighboring communities who ask for help on occasion. “… We went as far as Swissvale last year.”
Baldwin Independent’s firefighters know what their team members’ individual work schedules are for the most part, and usually, they’re not understaffed.
“We have a lot of people that work night shifts,” Connors said, “and a lot of people that work early-morning, so usually, we’re pretty good.
“We average about a 5-6-minute response time. That means, pretty much, from when the pager(/radio) goes off to when we arrive. So, that’s a really good time.”
Still, with an all-volunteer team, the Baldwin Independent Company is always looking for more brave souls who feel the need or have the desire to protect their neighbors.
“Everybody has their motivation for doing it,” Connors, a 2001 Baldwin High graduate, said. “Mine was my family. My dad was a firefighter. My brother did it, as well …
“If I had to say (what my motivation) is now, it’d probably be 9/11, just seeing what everybody went through, seeing all of the firefighters that were killed saving others.”
“I was always interested in (fighting fires) growing up as a little boy,” Chief Mike Krantz, another Baldwin High grad, said. “I used to watch ‘Emergency!’ and ‘Code Red’ all of the time when I was little, and it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do.
“Here I am 25 years later.”
Chief Krantz has been with Baldwin Independent since he was a junior firefighter at 16 years old.
“Just like my son,” he said.
All Baldwin Independent firefighters must complete training—about 188 hours’ worth—and pass physical tests in order to be an approved member of the company. For those who don’t want the test or don’t want to fight fires hands-on, the Baldwin Independents are always ready to welcome new members to their auxiliary team—a group of non-respondents who help raise money and complete necessary behind-the-scenes work for the company.
The Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1, like Baldwin Borough’s three other volunteer fire teams, receives no direct funding from the borough, Chief Krantz said.
Keep that in mind the next time that you dial 9-1-1.
“I wish people would realize what we do … ,” Chief Krantz said. “We bust our butt every time that whistle goes off. We have a dedicated group … We’re self-supported. We rely on donations from our response area, which is about 3,500 residents, and that’s how we pay our bills. That’s how we afford our equipment.
“We try to upgrade every 10 years, but the price of fire trucks isn’t going down.”
To volunteer your time as an auxiliary or firefighting member of the Baldwin Independents, call 412-882-2510 to learn how. You can also call that number to learn how to make a donation. If you cannot reach someone at that number, call the Baldwin municipal office at 412-882-9600.
For more on the Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1, read this story about some of the company's members' tornado-relief trip to Alabama earlier this year.