Fighting fires from within

Shortage of volunteers in Madison
reflects a statewide trend

More communities are now paying for firefighters

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(July 2008) – Pass by the Fair Play No. 1 firehouse at 405 E. Main St. in Madison, Ind., early on a summer evening and you will likely see a few older volunteer firefighters like Carl Morgan sitting around trading stories. Morgan, like the others, has been hanging around at that firehouse for more than 50 years and still loves going there every day.

July 2008 Indiana Edition Cover

July 2008 Indiana
Edition Cover

Decades ago, fire houses were the center of social activity. There was always something going on at the firehouse, whether it was a picnic, card game, dance, fundraiser, pool game or the regular fish fry. Family life centered on the volunteer fire department, and generations of young men waited eagerly for their turn to don the boots and coat their fathers and grandfathers had worn and carry on the volunteer tradition.
Time has changed all that.
While volunteer fire companies are still essential to the communities they protect, they have become less the hub of social activity. Statewide, the population of volunteer firefighters is aging, and new recruits are becoming harder to find.
“There is a trend statewide that the population of firefighters is aging,” said Larry Ketchem, president of the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association. “We are going to have to do something really soon about the issue.”
There are close to 40,000 people affiliated with the fire service in Indiana. About 25,000 of those people are volunteer firefighters. More than 18,000 of those volunteers are members of the IVFA.
Ketchem said some of the problems with attracting volunteers have to deal with the changing social circumstances of most families and the changing view of volunteering in general. “Everybody wants to be paid,” he said. “I’d like to see them get paid, but that will create more financial problems for communities.”
Another issue detracting volunteers is strict training requirements implemented by the U.S. Homeland Security Office after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack. Volunteer firefighters have to devote numerous hours to rigorous training before they are allowed to participate in emergency situations. While most firefighters agree the training is necessary for the demands of today’s fire and rescue circumstances, it creates a burden on volunteers.

Retired firemen from Fair Play No. 1 Firehouse

Photo by Don Ward

Retired firemen chat
about the old days at
Fair Play No. 1 firehouse.
They are (from left)
Pat Shimfessel, Carl
Morgan and Bob Chandler.

“When I joined my community’s volunteer fire company, you simply signed up and were trained on the job,” said Ketchem, a fire chief for the Indiana communities of Hillsdale and Montezuma who has been active for 50 years. Now the training takes away from already decreasing family time, and not too many people want to do it for free.
“We will always have volunteers,” he said. “It may get tough for awhile, but we will pull this thing out of the fire.”
Madison has a rich history of volunteer firefighting. While volunteers in times past had to wait in line to join one of the companies, today’s demanding schedules and changes in training regulations have dampened the volunteer spirit that has saved the community from numerous disasters.
Madison has one of the largest volunteer fire departments in the state with six separate companies of volunteers. According to Madison Fire Chief Steve Horton, there are 210 positions available in Madison for authorized fire personnel, and there are about 160 volunteers at this time.
“We are fortunate that we have enough people at this time, but many of our downtown volunteers are aging,” he said. “People’s work schedules and lifestyles have changed, which has created some problems for attracting younger volunteers.” He said officials will have to address the issue eventually, and the option of paying firefighters may be explored.
The city has also bragging rights to both the oldest continuous volunteer firefighting company and the oldest continuous operating fire station in the state.
On Sept. 15, 1841, Madison’s Fair Play Fire Company No. 1 was organized, according to documents in the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library. At that time, the brigade consisted of axemen, engineers, hosemen and enginemen. Age and physical standards for the crew were established, and weekly drills were held. Moody Park, the first mayor of Madison, was an honorary member of this company.
Throughout the city, a system of water cisterns was established a block apart on Main Street and at other intervals along the other major thoroughfares. Fair Play at that time had two hand pumpers and 120 members. With four men working vigorously, the hand pumps could throw a stream of water over a three-story building.
The first company of volunteer firefighters’ headquarters was a small, one-room dwelling located at the corner of Main and Walnut streets next to the market. Ironically, that building burned in 1848. Around 1845, the second fire company in Madison, Washington Fire Co. No. 2, was formed. It was given one of the pumpers and 800 feet of the leather hose used to fight fires at that time. In 1848, its headquarters were established in a building at the corner of Third and West streets. That building is the oldest continuous operating fire house in the state.

Historical Photo of Fair Play Fire House

Photos courtesy of the Research
Library at the Jefferson County
Historical Society Museum

Historical photos show how early
firefighters used to operate – with
horse and buggys. Madison has the
oldest fire company in the state.

A building at the corner of Third and Jefferson streets was built to house the Fair Play Co in 1848. It wasn’t until 1888 that Fair Play Fire Co. purchased its present building at the northeast corner of Main and Walnut streets.
Morgan, 74, has been on the Fair Play Fire Co.’s roster for 54 years. As a young man, he worked part-time at a Standard Oil station next door to Fair Play. “I started hanging around the station on my time off, and finally got the chance to join,” he said.
While he is no longer an active firefighter who makes the fire runs, he drove the Fair Play fire trucks for 50 years. “I miss going out on the calls,” he said. “Being a volunteer firefighter gets in your blood and never leaves.”
State regulations require firefighters over age 70 to retire from active service but still allow them to stay on the roster as volunteers.
He said firefighters never forget some of the fires they fight. He recalled with vivid detail the 1964 Hillside Inn fire in which all four downtown companies were called to fight.
“The call came in at 4:17 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 14,” he said. “We left the scene at 5 p.m. that evening, but others remained on fire watch.” On the Friday of that week, mattresses that had fallen through the caved-in floors and were in the basement caught on fire again. Firefighters had laid hose lines and left them there during the week to stave off any additional problems. It wasn’t until Saturday evening that those lines could be safely removed.

Carl Morgan

Carl Morgan

Morgan said that for decades there was usually something going on every night at the fire station. “There was usually a dozen or more people there every evening playing cards or doing other things.” Now, there are just a few who gather each evening.
One reason for the decline in the social scene at Fair Play, according to Morgan, is because most members no longer live near the fire house but instead on the hilltop. “I remember when everyone in the neighborhood gathered at the fire house every Sunday afternoon. The men would take the engines out to practice, and the rest of the family would hang around and socialize.”
John Knoebel, 70, has been an active volunteer firefighter with Fair Play Co. for 53 years. He is still a driver for the fire trucks during the day. He answers almost every alarm.
“Being a firefighter is something that takes hold of you, and you just can’t quit,” he said. “As long as I can, I’ll still do it to help my community.”
Knoebel said there is a noticeable change in volunteers today. They don’t want to commit to the demanding training required to become a firefighter. He believes eventually communities will have to start paying their drivers and engineers.

John Knoebel

John Knoebel

“I don’t see that happening in Madison, however,” he said. “We still have enough, and we have one of the best fire departments in this state.”
Burke Jones, 51, is one of the “newcomers” at Fair Play Fire Co. He has only been a volunteer for 25 years. “There is an enthusiasm and excitement involved with firefighting and helping the community,” he said. “I love the camaraderie and socializing that goes on within the fire community.”
Jones is also a part-time paid assistant deputy fire chief for Madison. He, too, sees that volunteerism in general has ebbed within the younger generation. “It is getting harder to get people to join,” he said. “The pace of life has changed, and the fire station is no longer central to people’s social lives.”
He said becoming a volunteer firefighter is a great opportunity to help the community and to meet and mingle with others. “I would love to see more young people get involved; they would truly love it.”
Tony Hertz of Washington Fire Co. No. 2 has been a volunteer firefighter for 45 years. While no longer active, he drove the trucks for his fire company for 28 years. He has two sons, David and Nick, who are both members of Washington Fire Co. During the Aug. 25, 2006, early morning fire at the Elks Club, 420 West St., Hertz worked alongside others to supply the needs of the firefighters and others on the scene. The blaze destroyed the Elks Club, the adjacent former City Hall building and two other properties.
He believes family pressures and societal changes have contributed to the lack of young volunteers joining the fire companies. He said many communities, such as Jasper, Ind., switched to paid firemen decades ago.

Western Fire Co. No. 3 firefighters

Photo by April Wilson

Western Fire Co. No. 3 firefighters
and family members are (from left)
son and father Tom and Graham
Lohrig; and Graham’s brothers Bill,
Ron and Jim Lohrig.

Over at Western Fire Co. No. 3, located at 815 W. Main St., the Lohrig family name is well known. Practically since the company was formed in 1850, there has been a Lohrig on the roster. Currently, there are six: brothers Bill, with more than 60 years of service; Ronald, with 50 years of service, Graham, an active firefighter with 40 years in the company; James, at 38 years of service and counting; and Graham’s two sons, Thomas and Peter.
The brothers’ father, Harold Lohrig, was Madison Fire Chief during the 1960s. He helped establish the hilltop companies of North Madison Co. No. 5 and Clifty Co. No. 6. Harold’s father, George Lohrig, was a firefighter during the early 1900s.
“We grew up in the fire station,” said Bill, 79. “When you got old enough, you just joined.”
In 1947, when he joined Western Co., there was a waiting list for volunteers. “You almost had to wait until someone passed away before you could join,” he recalled. “To even consider joining another company would’ve practically have been treason.”
He remembers the parties the company used to throw for its annual birthday. “There was always good food, beer and, of course, the wonderful stories of the old timers,” he said. “It was so great hanging out.”
Today, Graham said getting two or three years out of a volunteer is good. “People don’t realize we have such great volunteer firefighters,” he said.
He believes volunteering as a fireman is a fantastic way to help the community, learn something valuable and make lasting friendships. “It is a draw that really can’t be put into words,” he said. “It is helping people, and making friends. The experience is priceless.”

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