Earlier this month, the Lancaster Fire Department held their annual meeting to review the past year, honor two of their longtime members, and look to the future by formally unveiling and putting into service their newest truck.
The year 2013 was a busy one for the department, as they answered 87 calls, the highest number in the past three years. The largest number of those calls were for requests of mutual aid by neighboring departments (18), with the next highest (15) being for medical assists.
As for fires, there were six structure fires in 2013, equal to 2012, and three grass or brush fires, much less than the 13 that happened the previous year. There were two vehicle/tractor fires for the year, and two calls for electrical fires/power lines down.
A majority of the calls came from either within the City of Lancaster (38 percent), or South Lancaster Township (22 percent), while the remaining member communities (Beetown, Little Grant, Ellenboro, and North Lancaster) totaled 16 percent of the calls. By comparison, mutual aid calls were 24 percent of the calls answered in 2013.
The community breakdown for funding the department is that the city contributes 60 percent of the local contribution, while the five townships contribute the remaining 40 percent. Of those, South Lancaster contributes the most, nearly 42 percent of the 40 percent. Only the City of Lancaster and South Lancaster were 100 percent covered by the fire department, with the other municipalities split between various departments.
The new Pierce fire engine, shown off earlier this year, and used for weeks for training purposes, was declared ready for active service. The six-person cab has a 1,500 gpm pump, and a 1,000 gallon tank, and will be the first-due engine deployed for major fires.
Meanwhile, given the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s meeting was longtime firefighter, and former fire chief Gary Reuter.
“It was a total surprise, I didn’t know it was coming,” Reuter said of the honor.
Reuter’s time with the fire department began in 1979, where after four years on the department’s wait list - they limited the size of the department to 35 members at that time - Reuter was finally a member. “Back then there was more than enough people who wanted to be on the department,” Reuter said.
He noted that he wanted to join back then because he wanted to serve his community, and a number of his friends were on the department.
Reuter also remembered what the state of the equipment was back in those days - firefighters shared the turnout gear that they had at the time, which was mainly raincoats and shoes at that time.
But he joined the department just as it was going to begin its transformation into the department it is today, with Reuter playing key roles during part of that transition. Within a couple of years after he joined, the department expanded to 40 members, with those new members getting all-new turnout gear. Over the next couple of years, all the gear was replaced, and the days of sharing coats and boots was over.
“It was a slow process,” he recalled.
As time went on, Reuter advanced through the ranks, driven to see what new level could be reached. “I always enjoyed to see how far I could go if I set a goal,” he said of his mindset. Reuter rose to be the fire chief in 1992, a post he would stay in for the next 12 years, retiring from that position in 2004.
Reuter’s time as chief was when real changes took place. One of the proud accomplishments Reuter had was updating the equipment, including retiring old fire trucks, some more than 40 years old. “They were just obsolete,” he recalled, noting that they were not able to fight some fires as effectively with that equipment.
Another major milestone was the building of the new firehouse, moving out of the various garages cobbled together in and around City Hall that made up the fire station, and into the new building on Washington Street. “That old station you had to park the trucks three deep, so if you wanted one piece of equipment, you had to pull the others out first,” he recalled.
With the equipment and the fire station, Reuter credited those achievements to those others serving on the department at that time. He said that over the years he worked with assistant chiefs like Jim Bryhan, Tom Carroll, Dave Kjos, Bill Wetter, John Harpin, and John Hauth. “Those men just had a vast knowledge and skill,” Reuter said, talking about how for years they reviewed the plans for the firehouse, making sure it would be useful for generations of firefighters after them. “I would like to think we designed the station for many different generations to come.”
Reuter also said that those individuals on the department really helped him become a better chief. “It was definitely a big working curve,” Reuter recalled of learning the job. “We functioned as a great department.”
He added that his wife, son and daughter also deserve credit, who supported him, and handled the many times he was called away from the family. “I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been in that position understands what you have to do, the time commitment it takes,” Reuter said.
Talking about the fire department also leads to talking about the Rescue Squad, which he is also a member of. Reuter takes pride in the fact that he, along with his daughter, and Brian Allen went through the training to get the department certified as an IV Tech EMS squad, the first volunteer department in the county to do so.
Reuter took pride that while as chief, he also served as the president of the county firefighters association, as well as on the advisory board at SW Tech, helping craft the training programs area firefighters go through.
When he retired as fire chief in 2004, Reuter did not leave the department, and remains a member to this day. “I would really miss it if I couldn’t do it anymore,” Reuter noted. He said that one of the things he enjoys about being on the department today is being able to share information of things that went wrong in the past so this newer generation can learn and not make the same mistakes.
With different members of the family serving as emergency responders, and seeing so many turning that civic duty into careers, Reuter did not want to end the conversation without noting that individuals should join up. “If you have the passion these days, the sky is the limit.”
Also during the meeting, Joel Vesperman was recognized for his 24 years on the department, as he retired from answering the call. For Joel, the department had been a large part of his life, recalling how the fire department weaved into the births of his three children.
“Jared was born the day of the fireman’s picnic. Jade came along the night of the annual meeting/ department picture night. And Jenna, we were going to the hospital on a Saturday morning, and the fire whistle blew,” Vesperman recalled.
Joel remembered when he joined, under the tenure of Chief Carl Muench. “They needed members and I knew some of the guys that were on….It was something I wanted to do.”
Over the years, Vesperman went from being a firefighter, to driving one of the trucks, to becoming truck captain for a number of years. He said that he took pride in helping maintain some of the fleet. “The other members had to have trust in you because you were working on that,” Vesperman said.
He noted the tremendous time commitment, from the calls at any time day or night, to the regular meetings and training. With his children growing up and going off to school, he noted he wanted to be able to get to see them more.
He noted he would miss his fellow firefighters. He said that a recent trip to Florida showed him that he may be out of the department, but he cannot take the firefighter out of him as his interest got the best of him during two calls near where they were staying.