HANK ERVIN: Answering the calls

Both calls came in late at night, after most people’s lights were out. In both…

HANK ERVIN: Answering the calls

Both calls came in late at night, after most people’s lights were out. In both cases, the recipients were asleep on cold winter nights, when just climbing out of a warm bed for any purpose can seem like a chore. Two calls, both needed to be answered. In the first case, a fire was in progress on the east side of Route 7 in Sheffield. Two tenants who resided upstairs were cut off from the stairway by smoke. Members of the Sheffield Fire Department arrived within minutes; they cleared the passageway and got the fire under control without loss of life. Fortunately, the building had an operating fire detection system.

The second call, later that same year, came when a house fire broke out in the southern part of Sheffield near the Connecticut border. Once again, the Sheffield Fire Department responded within minutes, but, in this case, the fire moved quickly and killed two citizens before it could be contained. It is believed the property’s fire detection system was either missing or defective. For the fire volunteers, one call ended with a small sense of triumph; the other ended in grief for the loss of friends whom many had known personally. But in each case, volunteers were there to answer a call at a time of night when most of us lay sleeping.

In 2021, Sheffield Hose Company #1 answered over 415 emergency assistance and fire alarm calls. In 2022, they responded to 467 calls. In the words of the Fire Chief, “Helping citizens in need is what we do!” These calls come in at all times of day and night. Volunteer are notified by phone calls or emergency text messages. Volunteers respond based on the type of assistance requested. In the case of an accident, they may head directly to the site or, for a fire, they may proceed to the fire station to assemble and dispatch emergency vehicles. Different situations require different decisions. Then, according to their training and the protocols developed for efficient emergency responses, they answer the call.

Founded in 1898, Sheffield Hose Company #1 is a fully volunteer-driven organization that provides fire and emergency call service to the Town of Sheffield and owns the real estate on which the town’s fire and emergency apparatus is housed. The Company also serve as backup to all the small towns and village fire departments strung across the Berkshire’s southern tier. There are no paid full-time employees, although the Fire Chief, as head of the Sheffield Fire Department, receives a small stipend from the town to cover out-of-pocket expenses. Members of Sheffield Hose Company #1 are listed as part-time employees of the Town of Sheffield Fire Department for liability insurance purposes, but their only renumeration is a roughly $10-per-week payment for attendance at training sessions. In this symbiotic arrangement, the Sheffield Hose Company #1 also maintains and services the equipment owned by the town.

The Company’s building has been built largely thanks to direct efforts by the members, both from fundraising and contributed member services. Sheffield Hose Company #1 is a not-for-profit 501(c)4 corporation, and they willingly open their doors to the community whenever possible. With the help of charitable donations from local businesses and citizens, they are closing in on completion of a major renovation project to upgrade the facility, an effort that, without volunteer efforts, would have cost well into the mid-six figures. The work progresses slowly, as it is a “pay as you go” project. Tax deductible donations are always welcome, but members have provided the bulk of the physical labor and construction effort during their own free time while skilled specialty tradesmen have been employed when necessary to fulfill code and liability requirements. It is noteworthy that many members donate well more than their annual stipends back to the organization for the building project.

HANK ERVIN: Answering the calls
1. Members of the Sheffield Hose Company #1 installing insulation and sheetrock for the upstairs building renovations to the Fire House. Photo by John Ullrich.

Collectively, these volunteers bring a rare blend of intelligence and practical experience into the station house. The fundamental difference between someone like me with a liberal arts degree, and someone with operational knowledge about how the world works was immediately apparent to me when I became involved with the company. (To be clear, my volunteering there consists primarily of supporting the administrative functions of the organization; I am not yet qualified to “answer the call.”) I listened and tried to learn the strange new mechanical language being spoken during a training session. At the scene of a fire, an automotive accident or a medical emergency, the mechanical wisdom and experiential learning possessed by these volunteers makes all the difference. To use the “jaws of life” to free a trapped motorist requires structural knowledge of where to cut and how to bend metal to a purpose. It requires training and practice. Fire apparatus includes an array of mechanical guts, hoses, vents, portals, pumps, lights, and communication gear. Watching and listening to instructions on the pump control board, I felt a bit like a cabin boy in a movie invited to view the control panel of a naval vessel and admonished to “look but don’t touch until you know what you’re doing!”

So far, I have found it best to be largely hands-off, except to help wash down a dirty fire engine. The knowledge to effectively manipulate and coordinate each of those discreet parts during an emergency is critical to success. Small teams handle the pumps and water connections while other members disperse to their own assignments. Performance under pressure takes practice and teamwork as the teams deploy their basic tools, which may include axes, venting poles, air tanks, ladders, and hoses. What goes unseen to bystanders viewing an emergency response is the commitment to training that prepares the volunteers to respond effectively to that moment.

Volunteers working to contain and extinguish an active structure fire in Sheffield in 2022. Photo by John Ullrich.

Volunteers need a healthy dose of courage and an appreciation for the danger of the situation. Entering a burning building in which smoke obliterates sight and touch—equipped with only a fire hose and an air tank—requires knowledge gained under pressure and practical experience. I have seen members at practice crawling around on a garage floor in a black-out helmet, seeking to locate a potential survivor by touch. Most people are unaware that that fire hose and the buddy behind you pushing on your heels are your emergency lifeline in the event of a fire blow-out. If anything goes wrong at the upper end of that hose, your survival depends on your buddies down below being able to haul you out by the strength of that canvas hose line. All this takes training, for them to do their job and for you to maintain your composure. The members of the Sheffield Hose Company #1 may be volunteers, but they are no less professionally skilled than full-time fire department employees in our urban centers.

Total membership numbers tend to fluctuate, but the number of active members is generally less than 40 at any given time. Traditionally a male-oriented organization, Sheffield Hose Company #1 has opened its doors to women in the community who have an interest in serving as firefighters, EMTs, and as emergency responders. Training activities make no exception for gender, and the physical demands can be taxing for any volunteer. I have watched as firefighters don full wet suits in the middle of the winter and jump through a hole in the ice into the icy waters of the Housatonic River to practice rescue maneuvers. Responding requires commitment, physical capability, and a willingness to learn the technical skills necessary for personal safety and for the safety of both the team and the accident victim.

Who are these men and women who volunteer to answer the call? Most of them do not seek personal recognition, so I give you no names. But the Sheffield Hose Company #1 has members who are electricians, a shift supervisor in a manufacturing plant, a plumber’s apprentice, a school teacher, an auxiliary policeman, an EMT candidate, a nurse, mechanics, farmers, a forester, and several small business owners. They include fathers and sons and, more recently, a brother and a sister. These are people with highly adaptive skills trained to function as a team. But the one thing they share in abundance is a commitment to their community and the personal integrity to show up when that siren calls. No one other than themselves tells them why they need to answer that call. And one thing I can promise you is that when they hear that call, they carry no baggage other than their tools and a commitment to come to the aid of a person in need. There are no races, no creeds, no colors, no religions, and no sexual distinctions among members of the group; they are responders ready to help. Nor, in that moment, do they care who has made the call. All they care about is that they have heard the call of someone needing help and assistance for a fire or medical emergency. And that attitude permeates their relationship with their friends, families, and community.

In the best of times, they will haul Santa’s Sleigh delivering Toys to Tots at Christmas. They will provide Trunk or Treat goodies to the kids on Halloween. They will bring the Easter Bunny down Main Street on a cool spring morning. They will cook pancakes, host public safety events at the schools, and help pull missing and injured hikers off the Appalachian Trail, even when darkness has fallen. They will not leave you stranded when fallen trees have blocked your roads in a storm. And they are the faces in the full-dress uniform worn to observe the solemnity of a Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day parade. They will march in ceremony as we honor our veterans, either the living or the dead, commemorating others’ service to our country and this community.

Decorating Santa’s Sleigh for his arrival to greet children in downtown Sheffield. Photo by John Ullrich.

And, when one of their own community members or a family member has fallen, they will be there to help you bear the burden of that loss. They will stand by your side and mourn your loss as if it were their own. I speak here of a particular volunteer group that knits our Sheffield community together. But this expression of appreciation goes out to all volunteers who serve our community. They are what is best in all of us. They are what is the best of our community.

So, I share these thoughts with the public to remind us that what we so often rave about as being “the quality of life in the Berkshires” is due in no small measure to the volunteers among us. Let us say thanks to them all and wish them the best in a new year.