Tradition and Loyalty Hall-Marks of Princeton Fire Department

Town Topics
22 March 1978

Tradition and Loyalty Hall-Marks of Princeton Fire Department

Community service. That’s the prompt, universal reply when you ask volunteers in Princeton’s three fire companies why they joined.

Like other communities of its size, Princeton obtains fire protection from volunteers … men, and two women, whom you may never see and are rarely aware of until you need them, and then you’re aware of them … fast.

No, it’s not heroics most of the time. Sure, the volunteers do “eat the smoke,” as one of them puts it, and 31 years ago, two lost their lives In a chemical laboratory fire on the Princeton University campus.

But usually it’s mundane: an embarrassed householder puts hot fireplace ashes in a wooden garage … you’ll get a general alarm for a forgotten saucepan left to burn away on the stove … two cars collide, a gas tank is ruptured, you stand by “just in case.”

An Evaluation. On a recent Saturday, in the quiet lounge of Hook and Ladder ( that’s the firehouse on North Harrison Street), Chief William Anderson, First Assistant Chief Edward C. Kopp III and Second Assistant Chief William Shields, joined by former chief William Karch, talked about fire – fighting, the traditions of their companies and what it may be like tomorrow.

Although members of all three volunteer companies are traditionalists, with deep roots in Princeton’s past, they constantly work to hone their skills and improve their equipment in today’s world and are planning for the future.

“The new joint Borough – Township Fire Commission is a major step,” Mr. Kopp stated. “For the first time, there is citizen involvement and an ‘outside’ voice speaking for us to Borough Council. We’re the only department in the Borough without a full – time paid representative to lobby for us.”

“Now we have liaison,” nodded Chief Anderson in agreement. “In the past, if we didn’t have an active fire commissioner on Council we were … well, frustrated.” 

As an example of the improved situation, the chief spoke of the new Nomex coats, more fire – resistant than the ones they replaced. The companies went to the new commission with a request for these coats. Commission members presented the case to  Council, “ and the Borough followed through.”

Headquarters in Borough. Although the three companies protect both Borough and Township, their firehouses are in the Borough and they come under the umbrella of Borough government; in fact, it’s why in recent years that Township residents have been allowed to become members.

The Township, under the standard rateables formula or sharing the cost of many Borough – Township agencies, pays two – thirds of the cost of supporting the fire companies and buying equipment.

“Sometimes,” observes former chief William Karch quietly, “you get some feeling surfacing about this.”

The new Joint Commission was set up last year to study Princeton’s fire – protection service, and to constitute a permanent body to make recommendations as needed.

Members are William Seiden, Richard Fowler, Josie Tall, James Kishi, Eugene McPartland, George R. Griffing, Miriam Green, Robert F. Mooney and. Chief Anderson, former Chief Anthony Krystaponis and next year’s chief, Mr. Kopp.

Order of Succession. Fire chiefs serve one year. Mr. Kopp, now First Assistant, will be chief in 1979. Mr. Shields, now Second Assistant, will be chief in 1980.

And Mr. Shields, who is 28 now, will probably be the youngest chief in Princeton’s history when he takes office.

Bringing the communication system up to date is Chief Anderson’s next agenda item.

“Ours is antiquated,” he observed. “We need to get off the police frequencies and get more walkie – talkie channels.”

As it is now, every town in Mercer County except two – and one is Princeton — can switch to the county’s fire channel. In a big fire, like the Benson Building in January, 1977, apparatus comes from every town around Princeton to help out, but the firefighters have to walk – or run – from one truck to another because they can’t communicate any other way.

Princeton’s volunteers are also investigating units like a doctor’s “pager,” that clip onto a belt, and transmit the voice at the other end. A volunteer could wear one all day.

The present “pager” is a Plectron, in itself a big step away from the old – fashioned communication system, but it’s shoebox size and can’t very well be carried around under an arm all day.

Day or Night. The Plectron (portable electronic receiving device) goes into action the minute a police station receives a fire call. Police and fire vehicles are dispatched at the same time. The volunteers keep their Plectrons – around 40 or 45 of them are in use – in their offices, in the stores where they work or, at night, by the bedside. They get the call and they’re on their way.

Before, calls used to be received at the police desk in Borough or Township Halls, and the officer on duty; had to go down a list of phone numbers until he found a driver for the fire truck.

This, by the way, is the term for a so-called “still” alarm. For a “general” alarm, when all three companies respond in force, there is the honker and siren on top
of the North Harrison firehouse or the Chestnut Street firehouse of Princeton
Engine Company Number 1, or the loud bell on the Chambers Street house of
Mercer Engine Company Number 3 or the sirens on top of the First National Bank building or the Princeton High School building.

The honker blows a code: two honks, space, six honks, for example, is 26. That identifies a street intersertion or focal point, and tells the volunteer where to go.

Mr. Kopp recalled that one time when he was in the Shady Brook area, a call came through for a Castle Howard Court location, not far away off the Princeton – Kingston Road.

“I left immediately and when I got there, the police car was already there and a piece of ((fire) apparatus was five seconds behind. ”

Traffic a Growing Problem. But getting to a fire fast isn’t necessarily as fast as it used to be.

“Sometimes it’s hard for the men to get to the station what with all the traffic in town and the parking problem,” Chief Anderson said, “At some times in the day, it’s very difficult.”

What will it be like, as Princeton grows?

Maybe the Township will have at least a sub – station. A suggestion last year that one of the three firehouses might be moved to the Township drew unanimous opposition from the volunteers, with their strong sense of tradition and history.

“But Princeton will grow,” warned Mr. Karch. “You get this sewer moratorium lifted Even now, there’s Constitution Hill and the 600 or so housing units out in the Township planned by Gibbs and Hill. One of our problems in future planning is the growth of the town.”

That’s why, when the order was placed for Hook and Ladder’s new pumper with its 1,250 gallons – per – minute capabilities, they decided not to trade in the 1949 Mack. In a town about to grow, you don’t sell even 30 – year – old equipment.

“We’ve long felt the need for a regular schedule of replacement for our equipment,” Mr. Kopp said, “and we’re actively pursuing that policy at this time.” He’d also like a new, easy – to – remember telephone number.

Fire equipment isn’t cheap. The new pumper is a $73,000 investment. (“If we’d bought it five years ago, it would have been $45,000,” Mr. Kopp observed. )

Princeton’s very first engine, bought in the early 19th century, cost $500, Mr. Shields said with a laugh. That price, of course, didn’t include the horses.

Growing Cooperation. Because equipment costs so much, Mr. Karch thinks the future will see more cooperation between municipalities. Princeton might join with, say, West
(Continued on Page 16B)

Photo Caption:

IN LINE OF DUTY: Top-ranking members of Princeton’s volunteer fire companies line up in front of a piece of apparatus. That’s the 1978 Chief, William Anderson, at the left. He’s a member of Hook and Ladder. Next Is First Assistant Chief Edward T. Kopp III of Mercer Engine Number Three who will be chief In 1979, and then Second Assistant Chief William Shields of Princeton Engine Company Number One. the 1980 chief.


Fire Department
(Continued from page 1B)

Windsor or Montgomery to buy a $200,000 aerial truck Right now, Mr. Kopp adds. Princeton must call on neighboring towns (or equipment if there should be a big University fire, because campus buildings are so tall.

In turn, of course. Princeton responds when other towns need help.

Short-range, the future is the next fire. And that means drills.

Each company has drills. Drivers are constantly reviewing pump operations. Volunteers will “suit up” with Scott air mask and be blindfolded and then they’ll search the firehouse for a dummy-as though they were groping through a smoke-
filled house for its inhabitants.

The air mask is vital. Within the past decade, so much plastic has come into use that volunteers suit up with the mask as a matter of course. Burning plastic – your couch, your vinyl wallpaper, your “tile” floor-Is highly toxic.

Firemen used to go out, “in the old days.” and burn down an abandoned building just for practice. Air-pollution laws now prohibit that.

Volunteer System to Stay. How long will volunteers be able to meet Princeton’s needs?

Indefinitely, seems to be the answer. Even If only the drivers were paid, 24-hour-a- day coverage would be exorbitant.

If you’re wondering about your fire insurance in a town with volunteers. Chief Anderson will tell you that Princeton Borough’s “D” rating nationally, on a scale of A through E or F, is very good. Few towns with paid departments rate much higher. The Township has an E rating, simply because it has more rural spaces than the Borough with hydrants that are, naturally, farther apart.

There is something of a problem in getting men and women to serve. Each company, by Borough ordinance, is assigned 50 volunteers. It’s not serious if they are one or two short of that number. In addition, each company has an auxiliary of perhaps half a dozen to 15, who can do anything except go into a burning building.

“In the old days,” when men lived and worked right jn Princeton, it wasn’t difficult. In fact, there used to be waiting lists and Chief Anderson himself only got into Hook and Ladder because someone died.

But if you commute to New York and don’t get home until 13 hours later, you don’t want a volunteer community service job that may get you up at 2 a.m. on an icy winter morning.

Social Centers. Also, “in the old days,” the firehouse was the social center and many men, – bank presidents and professors, as well as merchants — signed up for conviviality as well as service. There are other social outlets today.
Incidentally, today’s male volunteers are uneasy about that “social club” reputation, but clearly there is a strong fraternal – bond among members of a given company and gentle rivalry with the other companies .

If you want to be a volunteer, you must live in Borough or Township although you can move later; Chief Anderson now lives in Plainsboro. You apply to the company of your choice. You must be between 18 and your 40th birthday and you must pass the physical. If you meet the requirements, Borough Council and the mayor vote you in.

The two young women volunteers fight the fires right alongside the men. There is no special treatment.

“Volunteer” isn’t precisely an accurate description: you get $60 a year. And you’re fined 50 cents or a dollar if you miss a fire. Want to join? You’ll be in good company.

—Katharine H. Bretnall

Several Families in Fire Department List Members from Three Generations

Service has always been a family tradition in Princeton’s three fire companies.

William Shields, who will be chief in 1980, remembers – running to see his father, William E., on the truck. Brother Henry F. and uncle, Abe Burger, are firemen, too.

Robert McClosley and Robert Jr., David and Leo, all in “Number One” and David’s son, Kevin, an auxiliary in Number Three. Sam, Francis and Russell Davison in Number One and former chief Robert Davison and Robert Jr. Former chief Gus Davison and Terry in Hook and Ladder.

Hulits? Warren and then his son, Ralph, Ralph Jr. and his brother, John. George Karch, uncle of William.

Borough Administrator Robert F. Mooney and his father, John and young John, Bob’s son. Edward Kopp and now Edward Kopp III, his grandson, and Stephen Kopp until he moved from Princeton.

The Rodwellers… Elmer and Leo. Ray and William and William’s son, Dave, in Number One and Ray’s daughter, Hannah, in Hook and Ladder, the first woman admitted to a Princeton fire company.

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