Bower Hill VFD celebrates 90th anniversary

Published Mar 3, 2014 at 11:17 am (Updated Mar 3, 2014 at 11:17 am)

This year, Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department is celebrating 90 years of service to the residents of Scott Township.

Chartered in 1924 to provide fire protection for the southern portions of the township, the fire department’s first home was on Montgomery Avenue. According to the department’s records, “The department entered service with a hand-drawn hose cart and a few hundred feet of fire hose, two hand-pumped water fire extinguishers, and some canvas coats and leather helmets, all purchased used, reportedly from U.S. Government World War I surplus. There were no ladders, no axes or hooks, and no pumping engine.”

“Back then, you were lucky if you had a horse and a cart,” said Bower Hill VFD’s current president Rob Losekamp.

Firefighting has changed drastically over the last 90 years said Losekamp, and especially during the last 10-15 years with the advent of new technology. From new equipment for firefighters, to more widespread use of smoke detectors, to changes in building codes, many factors have made firefighting much different than it used to be.

Over the years, changes in building construction and the materials used in building contents made fires more dangerous to fight. Lightweight truss construction means that roofs and floors collapse much earlier and with less warning, while plastics and synthetic fibers emit toxic smoke and gases when burned.

According to Bower Hill VFD’s website, “Firefighting classes stressed the importance of preplanning. Fire officers had to know about the architecture and potential hazards of the buildings in the area, and have plans ready to meet the dangers they presented. Firefighters had to be better protected than ever. Though synthetic materials presented the new threat, they would also provide the new defense. The cotton duck bunker coat was replaced by the Nomex and Kevlar turnout suit, complete with coat and pants, and the fiberglass helmet was replaced by new lightweight polycarbonate models. Heavy steel SCBA cylinders were replaced by fiberglass, aluminum and resin composite tanks at about half the weight. Polycarbonate and lightweight alloy hose nozzles and hose couplings replaced heavy brass. Fire engines became more powerful and reliable.”

Losekamp said that while technology has helped keep firefighters and the public safer, it also means more training for volunteers. Between new laws and new technology, Losekamp says it takes longer and longer for a new volunteer to complete the essentials of firefighting course. And throughout the year, volunteer firefighters receive continuing education on topics that can range from CPR and first aid, to hazardous materials operations, emergency vehicle operation, and confined space training.

“We encourage our younger firefighters to get their Firefighter 1 professional certification, which is recognized nationally,” said Ceil Kitchen, Bower Hill VFD’s secretary. “It also helps us when we apply for grant funding.”

Kitchen said the additional training benefits both the firefighters and the community. She explained that the Insurance Service Organization (ISO) upgraded the township’s fire protection class this year, from a 5 to a 3; because their training, equipment, record keeping, operating procedures, response times and number of firefighters responding to each incident meet the higher standard. The higher rating translates to lower homeowner insurance rates for township residents.

Earlier this year, Bower Hill VFD took time to reflect on the past and look toward the future at a dinner where they invited current and former members.

“Kevin Trichtenger, our historian, did a lot to compile the department history and photos, and put it on our website,” said Kitchen.

Members recalled that Bower Hill was one of the first departments to have a female firefighter, Esther Padgelek. Esther lived across the street from the Montgomery Avenue station, so she would take fire calls on her home phone and walk across the street to the station to hit the siren.

Also of note is Bower Hill VFD’s strong Junior Firefighter program. “Our Junior program is phenomenal,” said Losekamp. Launched unofficially in 1957 and officially organized in 1969, the Junior Fire Brigade trained students from ages 13 to 17 in firefighting and EMS skills, and still draws young people to volunteer. Many who participated as Junior members became leaders of the department, including Losekamp and current Fire Chief John Levi.

The Juniors grow up in the fire service and they continue on with it, said Kitchen. “It gets in your blood.”

In addition to firefighting, in 1956, Bower Hill VFD began to provide ambulance service to the community, which soon made up most of the department’s call volume. By 1983, Bower Hill VFD was the Advanced Life Support ambulance provider for the township, with EMS responses approaching 500 calls per year. Bower Hill joined with Glendale Hose Company No. 1 in 1997 to form Scott Township EMS (STEMS) to provide continuous advanced ambulance coverage to the township.

As the department looks to the future, changes are planned for the station at 161 Vanadium Road, their home since 1953. A two-bay addition was added to the fire station in 1967, along with a kitchen and rest rooms. In 1980, the department added a second story to the station building. The upstairs , which was available for rental, was used for department meetings and classes, as well as bingo. Losekamp said they plan on converting the hall into offices and a training room.

Losekamp is also looking at continuing to bring in new recruits to the department. “Every department around is looking to recruit more members,” said Losekamp, and it gets more difficult each year. “Today’s volunteer fire department is really a business, with budgets, office functions, and publicity.”

And while the department will always need those who are willing to enter a burning building, he said there are other ways the public can volunteer to help.

Losekamp said that while some people might think firefighters volunteer for the excitement, for most, it’s the doing something for someone else. He recalled an incident where a resident had a huge tree against her house and was worried that it would fall on a small tree that had been planted when her husband died.

“We cut the big tree so not one branch hit the little tree,” said Losekamp. “Things like that pay off.”

To read the complete history of the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department, visit www.bowerhillfire.com/history.html.

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