The Family Feeling - Firefighters' Safety Net

Posted: March 23, 1988

Among the photographs hanging in the Niagara Fire Company hall in Merchantville is a winsome one of a boy and a fire engine.

The boy is James Brickley Jr., then about 3 years old. Perched on the curving fender of the truck beside a quartet of firemen, the youngster is wearing an oversized fireman's cap. The black-and-white picture, faded to an uneven brown, was taken in 1927.

At the time, Brickley's father was the fire chief. Today, at age 63, Brickley himself is the chief of the Niagara Fire Company and has been for 24 years.

The company he runs is a family kind of a squad, where more than half of the 32 firefighters are related by blood or marriage. Fathers and sons. Brothers. Cousins. Together they fight fires in Merchantville, in neighboring suburbs and to a significant degree, in Camden. On Tuesdays you might find them laying new tile in the fire hall on Park Avenue or taking part in an equipment drill. In the summer, it's softball.

In 1987, the Niagara Fire Co. responded to 189 fires, 30 of them in Camden, said John Grant, Niagara's battalion chief. Merchantville is less than a mile square - "10 blocks long and four blocks wide" as Brickley describes it - and sees most fires in the town's stately Victorian homes.

"You could wait a week for a fire in Merchantville. And then when you decide to go home, there could be three in a row," said Grant, whose two brothers and father are also members. "It's a quiet company."

This is a story of that quiet company.

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Last week, shortly before 7 p.m. Tuesday, John Engleman's fire company- issued beeper sounded. Engleman, a mortician by trade and a volunteer fireman for more than seven years, rode to the fire scene at an apartment on Walnut Avenue in one of Niagara's three trucks.

The cause of the fire was an accident involving a propane-fueled barbecue grill on a fire-escape landing. It eventually melted some vinyl siding. Niagara's firefighters were back at their station within a half hour.

"We always take all the equipment if we can," Engleman said. "You never know what you're going to get when you arrive. We've had calls - where someone reported just smoke odor - that have turned into six-hour fires."

Not all fire calls are as quick and easy as the one on March 15. In 1987, the company had what Engleman said was Niagara's first fire fatality in Merchantville, when an electrical fire that started in a chair engulfed a house and injured an elderly couple. Both were hospitalized, he said, and the husband, who had a heart problem, later died.

"When we got there, there were flames shooting out of the windows," said Read Perry, an 11-year Niagara member who also works for the Merchantville Police Department. "I saw what I thought was a door, and it was really a

window that had been really burned out."

Brickley said Niagara kept five cans of "blitz" - a substance that aids in tanker-truck spills - on hand in case of accidents on the town's streets.

"Merchantville is something of a 'through town,' and we get the gas trucks on their way to the refineries," he said. "Sometimes we have a problem, not so much because they hit something as because someone forgot to shut a valve or something."

Greg Grzegorek of Pennsauken was laying a checkerboard of white and tan tile in the fire-hall kitchen last week. As the evening wore on, James Brickley's brother John presided over the couch in front of the squad's wide- screen television, joined by an ever-changing crew of companions. The hockey game was on. Soda, chips and pretzels were broken out. A cloud of ammonia gathered in the far corner, where two company members used copious amounts of window cleaner to scrub a wall.

It was work-party time, the brand of industrious, get-something-productive- done socializing that's a regular event at Niagara.

"Originally, I joined two and a half years ago because a friend of mine had joined to play softball," Grzegorek said. "It's hard work being in a fire company. Everybody gets very close here. You go through a lot together."

Grant said young men, just a few years out of high school, were the ones most often attracted to the company. Many, he said, come from the neighboring towns of Cherry Hill and Pennsauken. After a required stint in fire-school training, they become full members. Most of them stay until marriage and a new house take them too far from Merchantville, Grant said.

"Especially for the young guys, it gives them a chance to get away from home for an evening or an afternoon and socialize," he said. "You do have to find a balance if you're married. Sometimes we do get calls from wives, wanting to know if their husbands are here and will they come home."

Merchantville has no fire tax. The fire company's equipment, building and operating budget are paid for by the township. However, the squad still relies on resident contributions for about $2,000 a year to help finance its work.

The company is proud enough and financially comfortable enough to be the

conservator of its own 100-year-long history. Niagara's first motorized truck, a 1916 American LaFrance, now restored, is shown off at parades around the country. It will make another appearance May 7, when the company celebrates its 100th birthday with a mammoth parade.

Memorabilia line cases and walls. The minutes of the first company meeting in 1888. Old leather helmets. A 140-year-old pewter "trumpet" used like a bullhorn at a fire scene that was a gift from the company's namesake in Philadelphia.

"It started in a place called Mick's Garage," said Anthony Grant, John Grant's brother. "There had been a bad fire in a barn, and some of the merchants decided it was time to have their own company. And we're still here today."

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