Lifesaving Volunteers: Simply a Calling, Yet Far From Simple


f-Surf City FD Old Truck 5A journalist doesn’t always know what direction a story might take. What began as a story about a cool antique fire truck quickly grew into a story about all the cool fire trucks – and then became a bit more meaningful. Because while the Island’s five volunteer companies have separate fleets with unique capabilities, what they have in common, along with the two first aid squads, is a mission to protect life and property at all costs.

The average citizen may not be fully aware of the extent to which these men and women dedicate their time and risk their own safety to serve residents, and how vital donor support is to make it all possible.

“It’s not just breaking windows and squirting water,” according to Surf City Fire Chief Mike Wolfschmidt. The fire company can be “the last chance for people,” he said, and often the odds are against them.

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As a collective lifesaving force, the Island’s fire and first aid volunteers respond to thousands of calls each year, for every imaginable kind of emergency: from a dog trapped on ice in the bay, to a pregnant woman in labor, to people evacuating their homes to escape flames. When the calls come, they put on their figurative capes and rush to life-or-death situations. Outside normal beach patrol hours, they also serve as lifeguards. Barnegat Light and Beach Haven are both equipped for water and ice rescue, with rescue cans, Stokes baskets and paddleboards, dry suits, ice picks, and personal watercraft.

There’s a strong sense of community, said Ship Bottom Fire Chief Doug White. “It’s a brotherhood.” Volunteering to save lives and property is something he and his brethren simply feel called to do. But there’s nothing simple about it.

The basic fire academy course is 180 hours to learn driving, pumping and other skills. The standard getup – mask, hood, helmet, bunker or turnout gear, pants, jacket, boots – weighs 25 to 30 pounds and costs over $11,000. Goals and wish lists are a big part of life for fire companies and first aid squads. Ship Bottom has a set of plans hanging up on the wall for a Rosenbauer custom mid-mount ladder truck with a bucket. Surf City just bought a pair of stretchers for $90,000 and is saving up for an addition to the firehouse: a couple more bays, some office space, bunkroom, maybe even a gym.

The key to running a successful fire company is frugality, according to Barnegat Light Fire Chief Keith Anderson. Surf City, for example, lost a rescue truck in Superstorm Sandy, and the old pumper died, too. So, to be economical, they spent the replacement value of the two lost trucks on one new one.

The 18-Mile Association, formed in 2002, is comprised of the five fire companies and two first aid squads. They share a common radio system and use the same towers, antennae, and head units; meetings every other month or so provide opportunities to touch base and stay aware of each other’s needs. “We built our own infrastructure so all the fire, beach patrol, Coast Guard and marine police can talk to each other on the same bandwidth,” Anderson said.

t200-Surf City FD Old Truck 1A glimpse into each organization reveals the pride taken in the maintenance of the equipment, garage, hall and even the recreation space. In part because it’s all very expensive, as Anderson pointed out, and raising money is hard – plus “it’s our second home.” And in part to honor the memberships’ long history. After all, the beauty of volunteerism is doing a job out of love, not obligation, said High Point Fire Company President Andrew Wahlberg. “I’m coming because I want to be here, not because I have to be.” The bonds among the members are powerful.

“I’ve known these guys most of my adult life,” he said. They’re not just hanging out, having cookouts on weekends, he pointed out. They’re out there risking their lives together.

Dual membership is common, Anderson related. Wolfschmidt, for example, is chief in Surf City and a member of High Point.

Another commonality across the board is resourcefulness and adaptability. In all the firehouses, members contribute whatever skills they have (carpentry, mechanics, electrical, plumbing) to keeping the place in many ways self-sustaining. For example, a handmade piercing nozzle (to go through, say, metal or wood) is almost certainly the handiwork of former Surf City Fire Chief Emil Tum Suden, who had the engineering mind to make all kinds of tools, according to Wolfschmidt. And the Ship Bottom guys found some plans online to build a gear-drying machine out of PVC piping that hooks up to an air blower. They hang their uniforms on these stick-figure forms – a useful concept for surfers to dry wetsuits.

Each of the Island fire companies has 20 to 25 active members, and each company has a specialty. Barnegat Light and Beach Haven have water rescue equipment, High Point has a 100-foot ladder truck, Surf City has extrication tools, and Ship Bottom has a 62-foot ladder and a scene light. They all have state-issued, decommissioned military vehicles through a cooperative agreement with the Forest Fire Service – handy for trashcan fires, flood rescue and helping fight forest fires in mutual aid calls from the mainland.

Mutual aid is important. Ship Bottom has a joint venture with Stafford to cover Bonnet and Cedar Bonnet islands during the bridge construction, Chief White said. In general, Ship Bottom and Surf City run together on every call.

“We do this for personal satisfaction,” White said. “The greatest reward is a job well done.”

Down at the south end, the Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Co. is the Island’s first and oldest, established in 1883 and occupying its current building since 1906. The age of the building means smaller-than-average engine bays are a bit cramped for today’s fire trucks, which tend to be custom-ordered to suit the needs of a given fire company. Designing the company’s newest truck to fit was a bit tricky, according to Fire Chief Ted Johnson.

The fleet includes an 85-foot snorkel truck that’s “basically a giant electrical truck” with a tank, pump and hose. In total, Beach Haven has two engines and a ladder truck (which is starting to show its age, in need of constant repairs), two pickup trucks, a command vehicle and a 1992, 5-ton dump truck it got right after Superstorm Sandy and outfitted for rescue and firefighting with 400 gallons of water. “It’s still a work in progress,” Johnson said.

Beach Haven averages over 300 calls a year, and the average volunteer is giving one to 20 hours of his time each week, Johnson said.

Johnson, now three months into the position of chief, signed on as a member a little over 10 years ago, at the age of 18. For him, the progression went from beach patrol to first aid to fire company. His day job is security at the Southern Ocean Medical Center emergency department; he also volunteers for the NJ Forest Fire Service. For two seasons, June to October, he fought wildland fires out in the western states.

The company’s biggest fundraising event is its turkey dinner (this year’s was the 100thannual). Others include the block party during Chowderfest weekend, T-shirt sales and a mail-out summer fund drive.

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Working in close cooperation with the fire company is the Beach Haven First Aid Squad, led by Capt. Jack Casella, with two divisions to maintain, in Beach Haven and Ship Bottom, and a fleet of eight vehicles: five ambulances, two beach trucks and a Ford Explorer that has lights, siren and a first aid box. The squad covers a total of 10 miles of LBI, including Ship Bottom, portions of Long Beach Township south of the Causeway, and Beach Haven.

Covering the north end, Barnegat Light First Aid Squad has approximately 50 members, according to Capt. Jay Zimmerman. The only requirement for becoming a member is the minimum age of 16, he said, and all necessary training for becoming a driver or EMT is offered and paid for by the squad.

“We get a stipend from each (town covered),” Casella said, “but when you consider that a new ambulance costs $180,000, we have to rely on the generosity of our residents and visitors alike. Most people don’t realize that we are volunteers, and we depend on their donations. When you spend $300 to $600 for an EpiPen to save a life, or have to buy new equipment, it comes from the generosity of our town and some of our homeowners.”

Casella doesn’t have a lot of downtime, he said, between work, running the squad around the clock, meetings, going out on calls and teaching CPR. But he’s a happy man because the rewards greatly outweigh the challenges. Rewards can come in the form of restarting a stalled heart, or hearing from a former diving accident victim that the doctors said the medic who packaged him saved his life and is the reason he’s walking today. Casella delivered his first baby on the job over 30 years ago, and celebrated that little girl’s birthday with her and her family for the first 16 years of her life. He still gets a call from her every year – and the doctors had said she wouldn’t last a week.

“In my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than having the ability to help someone in their worst and sometimes scariest moment,” Zimmerman said. “It is also rewarding to be able to work and train directly with our fire companies, police departments, lifeguards and Coast Guard.

“Being a first responder sometimes is very challenging,” he said, citing the time and travel involved in staying current with certifications. “We need 24 (continuing education) credits every three years and do a refresher course to keep our certificates, as well as CPR. Things are changing all the time, and we have to keep up with the changes.”

Zimmerman agreed, the major challenges are staying on top of the latest training and trying to have the safest equipment available to be able to take care of patients proficiently and professionally. Specific to Barnegat Light, he added, “Our members respond to the scene the majority of the time and are less of a ‘crew’-based squad than most, due to the demographics of our coverage area.”

Beach Haven has about 30 members – locals, seasonal homeowners and weekenders – “But like any other organization, we have about seven that answer most calls in the winter.” Some volunteers come from other areas and stay for a few weekends in the summertime, putting in 12 hours a day or more.

“So far this year, January and February, we have done almost 100 calls and handled them all with a responsive time of about 5 minutes.”

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In Ship Bottom, Chief White has been top dog for about two years. A local kid, Southern Regional Class of 1990, his life’s work has been about service: four years in the Navy fighting shipboard structural fires, then to work for the federal Department of Defense. Currently he’s a hazmat specialist at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Ship Bottom can handle minor spill cleanups, he noted, but for the big jobs they call Station 85 in Berkeley Township, Ocean County.

The Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. was established in 1922, when the town was called Beach Arlington. The original pocket door remains, though no longer in use, as a legacy feature in the great hall. The building got renovated after Sandy, including a total makeover of the upstairs recreation suite, courtesy of the reality television show “Restaurant Impossible.” To hear White tell it, the makeover was long overdue – its previous décor was 1970s orange, shag pile carpeting, and cigarette smoke. “When you turned on the light, it got darker,” he joked. The new space is styled to the hilt, with touches of tradition such as the very old helmets and the original Ron DiMenna “hatch cover” table. A door off the second-floor recreation room gives access to the deck with a grill for cookouts and to the expanse of rooftop solar panels.

Among Ship Bottom’s vehicles is a 1937 Peter Pirsch truck that was used to fight fires for about 20 years but now makes appearances only in the annual Christmas parade and local car shows. The company also has a ladder truck, a pumper, two pickup trucks, and two military Humvees – co-op vehicles from the Forest Fire Service, which it re-did in house. The pumper came as a gift from Hempstead, N.Y., after Sandy, to “pay it forward.” Ship Bottom later donated a truck to a fire company in Alabama.

“We work for everything we have,” White said. “We own the trucks, the building, the property.” Annual fundraising efforts include the Summer Sizzle, the Pistons and Pumpers car show, and T-shirt sales at the summer concert series at the boat ramp.

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Surf City Chief Wolfschmidt cherishes (and sometimes wears!) the wool coat that belonged to the Surf City Fire Co.’s first chief, and charter member, Elvin Smith in 1959. Smith’s daughter Nancy thought Wolfschmidt might like to have it, so she shipped it up to him from North Carolina, and all she asked for in return was a fire company T-shirt.

“I think I made out better on the trade,” he said. “To me, it’s an honor.”

Surf City is unusual in that its fire and first aid service are combined into one organization.

The second truck the fire company ever owned is still in use, a 1956 Mack B85. The original bill of sale is still on file at the firehouse. It was bought new in spring of 1956, and has also been used to fight forest fires. It has 14,000 original miles on it and its original wooden ladders and 800 feet of hose. “Back in the day, they would ride on the back with straps,” Wolfschmidt said. Everything on it works, including the pumper. New, it was a state-of-the-art machine: power steering, heated cab. Its rigid hose would draft water from the bay. “I’ve never seen another B Mack like this,” Wolfschmidt said, referring to the flat sides, the sleek design with everything enclosed in roomy compartments. It could be a backup pumper, but it’s used now mostly for shows and parades. Wolfschmidt is one of a handful of people who can drive it. The double clutch is hard to get used to, he said, and she starts better in second gear.

“The reason we still keep it, I think, is it’s important that we honor the tradition of the firefighters who came before us. So we remember where we came from.”

A lot of companies use old trucks for funerals, referred to as “the final alarm,” he noted.

Wolfschmidt joined the fire company at age 14, in 1998, and he’s now in his second year as chief. Firefighting is also his fulltime career in Westampton Township, where they receive about 3,000 calls a year, compared to Surf City’s 200 or so. It’s an awesome career, and pretty competitive in New Jersey, Wolfschmidt said. But the local volunteers, even though they’re unpaid, undergo the same level of training to earn the same qualifications, and use the same aggressive tactics to provide the same quality of service.

Built into the logo design and hanging on the wall above the uniforms are words to live (and fight) by: duty, tradition, pride, preparedness, integrity and dedication.

For Wolfschmidt, the firefighting “gene” can be traced back to his great-grandfather. His grandfather was a fire chief in Palmyra; his dad is a lifetime member of the Surf City company, where a wide range of ages means the different generations help and learn from each other.

With fewer volunteers stepping up nowadays, more help is needed. A membership drive is planned for the spring.

Parked outside is the 1991, 5-ton military transport vehicle the company got about two years ago. It came in Desert Storm camouflage, and the company repainted it red with white lettering. “We’ve actually rescued quite a few people,” Wolfschmidt said. All-terrain, auto-inflating tires, high ground clearance and a powerful winch give it diverse capabilities. Surf City’s has bench seating and a canopy on the back; Beach Haven’s is the same style, but with a dump truck body.

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High Point Volunteer Fire Co., in Harvey Cedars, was established in 1937 and does about 100 calls a year.

Company President Wahlberg has belonged to the company 27 years; he joined when he was 16. He’s also a Beach Haven police sergeant. His dad was a town councilman up north, he said, so he grew up understanding the importance of community service, commitment and duty to one’s hometown.

“It’s a sacrifice for the whole family,” Wahlberg said. “We have some great tradition in this fire company. I’m honored to be here.”

In the High Point garage, the beach rescue truck is a Ford 350 SuperDuty; the 100-foot ladder truck is an asset as it lets them get closer to any fire from an elevated angle; the 2001 fire engine was getting some maintenance work done to it, a never-ending concern, given the salt air and climate are hard on the vehicles; and the military truck is a “deuce and a half,” useful for evacuations and in flood situations. The two antique trucks are a 1940 Ford in beautiful refurbished condition, and a ’59 Mack with a convertible top (it was in service until about ’90 or ’91, but now needs some restoration work). The old vehicles stick around as a symbol of tradition and pride, Wahlberg said. “It’s for the guys who rode in it before.”

If everybody chips in and does their job, he said, no one person is overwhelmed, and it all runs fine. As president, his priorities are equipment, training and morale.

The biggest burden, of course, is the cost, but cutting corners just isn’t an option: “You’ve gotta have the right equipment,” he said. Luckily, the company has a great relationship with the borough and the whole town, he said. “If the bay doors are open, people are walking in, saying hello.”

Fundraising efforts include donation drives, T-shirt sales at the firehouse and every Wednesday during the concerts at Sunset Park, the annual chicken dinner around Memorial Day, the striper shootout tournament, and the Dog Day Road Race.

Everything intertwines, like a big family, Wahlberg said – sometimes literally. Ship Bottom Chief White and former High Point Fire Chief Sean Marti are married to sisters. The members attend and support each other’s installation dinners and see each other at the firefighters convention in September.

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Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Co. was also established in 1937 and had 125 calls last year, although the average is about 100. Chief Anderson estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of calls are for water rescue and assisting first aid. Fall victims on jetties are frequent calls.

Of the chiefs currently in office, Anderson is the longest, with 15 years. His dad was a member, and Keith was 18 when he joined, along with a couple of friends who are still active. Anderson owns a building company, lives in High Bar Harbor, and is often seen driving down the road, waving to everybody.

Barnegat Light does water and ice surface rescue, but no diving, he explained. To cross the expansive beaches in Barnegat Light, personal watercraft are kept in a trailer, hooked up to a heavy-duty pickup. The truck drives the trailer to the beach; then the PWCs get pulled to the water by an all-terrain vehicle.

In addition, the company has two engines, one of which was a demo truck, as opposed to custom. BL’s military truck arrived in the spring of 2012, before Sandy, so it was “definitely a blessing to have it, to help evacuate people,” Anderson said.

The biggest fundraiser for Barnegat Light is merchandise sales – T-shirts and hats, available on Sunday mornings from 8 to noon, all summer. The ladies auxiliary coordinates a big auction every Memorial Day weekend. A big wish list item recently checked off is the fire hall renovation, completed last year. The finished product is gorgeous, all DIY-style with the painting, trim and electrical.

Twenty-five years ago it was a lot harder to raise money, Anderson reflected, but a lot simpler to fight fires. Today, it’s a challenge to keep up with all the safety requirements and to stay on top of all the paperwork. It’s also a lot tougher now to get members. Volunteers are most likely to sign up before college, or after they’ve established their families and careers.

Posted in Brotherhood, Fire Service, Firefighting.