Volunteer decline claims a Pannsauken fire station

Posted: March 18, 2014

PENNSAUKEN Mike Sammon stood in Pennsauken's Fire Station No. 4 on a recent afternoon as winter at last began yielding to spring.

"I've been here half my life," Sammon, 46, said, a gold fire-rescue charm around his neck. "It's been home to me."

But as of March 31, the 89-year-old Delaware Gardens Volunteer Fire Company will close in an effort to increase efficiency and firefighter safety, officials say.

Contributing in large part to the decision is a decline in fire volunteers, a national trend that has hit home for the station on 49th Street.

The company, which boasted 30 members in the 1990s, now has four active members. Pennsauken Fire Chief Joseph Palumbo said on many calls, the station was sending one or two firefighters. The recommended standard, he said, is for crews reporting to fires to work in teams of at least four.

Citing the personnel decline and a 2002 township fire-prevention plan that recommended consolidating some stations, Pennsauken officials have said the remaining volunteers will merge with station No. 2, less than a mile away.

Palumbo said service would not be affected, adding that the last time the township closed a station - No. 6, in 2010 - the average response time decreased from about 5 and a half minutes to 4 minutes and 41 seconds.

But the most recent closure in this 12-square-mile town has underscored the continuing struggle to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. In the United States, the number of volunteers has dropped 13 percent since 1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Palumbo said the township had more than 300 volunteers in the early 1990s. It now has 71.

Between 1983 and 2013, he said, full-time paid firefighters doubled to 18. In early 2013, the township reorganized the career firefighters' schedules to serve all hours, every day, in three platoons.

Even so, all of the town's five stations respond to assist with fires. "We are completely reliant on both" volunteers and career staff, Palumbo said.

He maintains the decision isn't based solely on economics. The Fire Department, with an operating budget of $383,000, will save about $43,000 annually.

The remaining four volunteers will join 12 others at station No. 2, and they'll come under familiar leadership: Chief Gary Burgin, whose grandfather Robert Burgin Sr. and great-uncle Walter Burgin were founders of the Delaware Gardens station.

Burgin Sr. provided collateral to guarantee a loan for the headquarters, which was next to the current building, Gary Burgin said.

The current building opened in 1960. Photos and newspaper clippings adorn the walls of the station garage, including a report that identifies John W. Whitecar, a volunteer firefighter, as the initiator of an effort in the late 1940s to get bells installed in firefighters' houses to alert them to fires.

The bells could be triggered from the police station or the firehouse, according to an Evening Bulletin report, a system later adopted throughout the region.

Gary Burgin, who was chief of the Delaware Gardens station from 1988 to 2000, joined the station on his 18th birthday in 1973.

"In your heart, you don't want to see" a closing, he said. "In your mind, you know it has to be done."

Mayor Jack Killion said: "It's a great community thing, but times are changing, and we're trying to do the best we can with them."

The Fire Department will host a public meeting at the township public library at 6:30 p.m. Monday to discuss the closure and a proposal to build a modern fire headquarters on the 6700 block of Westfield Avenue. If the proposal is approved, station No. 2 would operate from the new building.

Sammon, who got married in the fire hall and raised his only son at the station, fought tears as he recounted his 23 years there.

"It's tough, but I'm not going anywhere," he said. "We're putting ourselves in more peril trying to stay."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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