The Collingswood Fire Department is unique among many other municipal squads in some respects; for one, it’s neither all-volunteer nor entirely professionally—i.e., paid—staffed, but rather, a mix of both.
One way in which it's exactly like many other departments in many other towns across the country, however, is in its recruitment challenges. As fewer potential recruits seem to be able to find the time to volunteer, numbers dwindle almost annually, says Chief Keith Davis.
That’s why the Explorer program, which grooms teenage firefighters for volunteer service, is “so crucial” to the health of the department, he says.
“Once you reach the age of having to work or go to college, that’s when the volunteer service will suffer,” Davis says. “There’s two jobs or extra school, and it’s a lot of time.”
The Explorer program is open to Collingswood residents age 14-18. It is essentially “the first step into the fire service,” Davis says. Teens are provided with free training, uniforms, and gear. They’re allowed to respond on calls, but are basically limited to a support function that is clear of any danger.
Explorers are effectively able to sample the lifestyle of the firehouse and hopefully transition right into the volunteer company when they turn 18, Davis says.
But because firefighting is such a familial tradition, many of the Explorers who stick with the program already harbor a passion for it that was instilled by their older brothers, fathers, uncles, and cousins.
“My neighbor’s kid attacks me every day,” Davis says. “We sit out every day and talk about fire trucks.
"As a kid looking up the police service, the fire service, is a thrill," he says. "Having a family member in the service keeps the draw going even when they grow out of that phase.”
Take, for example, 14-year-old John Amet. The son of the retired Collingswood F.D. chief of the same name, Amet says firefighting is in his blood. Leadership seems to be as well: the younger Amet was just named captain of the Explorer squad.
“I was born and raised around this stuff,” he says. “Once I turned 14 I just wanted to get into it.
“It definitely keeps you out of trouble,” Amet says. “It keeps you going good in school because if you get bad grades you can’t participate.”
Amet’s friend and fellow Explorer, Zach Irwin, is the youngest son of Collingswood volunteer firefighter, Scott Irwin. His older brother (also named Scott Irwin) just graduated the Explorer program; he's in school to become a volunteer firefighter.
“It’s a good program,” Zach Irwin says. “Family’s in here, and you follow it up through the program, and then hopefully you take classes and maybe become a paid fireman one day.
"Ever since I was little I wanted to do it,” he says.
Zach Irwin says that what Explorers who may enter the program without having a family member in the company don’t understand is the seriousness with which Explorers regard their volunteerism.
“We want to take this as a career,” he says. “They don’t look at it from the same point of view we do.”
Davis says that although he hopes that enthusiasm is contagious, the best thing about the fire service is that once someone’s in, they’re all brothers.
“There’s always someone watching; there’s guys always looking out for the other families,” he says. “We all look out for each other.”