Most every Sunday morning when I’m not on the road, I can be found at the big yellow firehouse of the Ralston Engine Company # 1 on Route 24 in Mendham, NJ. I first joined up in a gesture of solidarity and thanks to my neighbors, most of whom were members of this all-volunteer fire department, during an environmental battle to save the 400 acres across from my home from being turned into a housing development. We lost the battle, but this was the beginning of a 24-year fascination with fire, fire engines and fire fighting.
So what does it take to be a fireman? Burning (sorry) desire and the completion of three months of three-hour classes, three nights a week, and more hours for drills every weekend on the grounds of the county fire academy. You graduate from the academy as a certified entry-qualified fireman, which means you get to enter a burning building while everyone else on the scene runs in the opposite direction.
In a small town like Mendham, about an hour west of Manhattan, with a population of less than 2000 families, we don’t actually see a lot of fires. But every Sunday, we meet at the firehouse for Engineers Duty. Everybody on hand pitches in to clean, check and service the trucks (pumper, tanker and utility support truck), maintain fire gear and equipment and perform practice drills.
Out of maybe 200 calls in a year, excluding ones for burnt toast, cats caught in trees and false alarms, there might be ten real deals — involving cars, forest fires or the ultimate, a working structure fire. These rare occasions make for long nights and a lot of pumping adrenaline. And pictures…