WARREN, Pa. – Firefighters have no problem taking the heat, but now a group of North Warren VFD firefighters is going to find out just how well they measure up against the cold.
This group of volunteer firefighters has decided to participate in the Salvation Army Polar Plunge during Winterfest 2024 on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. The goal is to help raise awareness of the desperate need for new volunteers and raise money for the Salvation Army.
“The numbers are dwindling,” North Warren VFD member Jerry Hammerbeck said. “My thought is if people see a bunch of firefighters going out there having a fun time. Trying to raise money for a good cause, you know, maybe that’ll click in someone else’s head. Well, that looks fun. It looks like they’re having fun. Maybe I should go to my local fire department and see what this is all about.”
Pennsylvania has been losing volunteer firefighters at an alarming rate. At the end of 2023, there were just 38,000 volunteers across the commonwealth, according to data from the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute. That represents a loss of nearly 90% from the volunteers in the 1970s (300,000 to 38,000).
“We’re essentially a family outside of our family,” Hammerbeck said. “Most every firefighter thinks that way. I’d like to think that here in North Warren. We really hold true to that.”
“We’re a small, small company, especially for this area,” North Warren VFD member Erin Domer said. “We’re all pretty close, you know, in here outside of here.”
For at least some members, joining a company seemed like the most natural thing to do.
“My dad’s been teaching for the fire academy for basically forever,” North Warren VFD member Chris Riggle said. “I’ve been around the fire service well before I was able to join. And then that time came at 14 I joined and I’m 36 now, so…”
“I’m third or fourth generation, my great granddad that I was named after actually was fire chief where I grew up for a while,” Domer added.
Anyone interested in joining the North Warren VFD can stop in on Wednesday evenings. The group runs drills at 7:30 p.m. and people are available, typically by 7 p.m., to hand out applications and answer questions. One Wednesday each month is a station meeting.
“Basically if anybody shows up here on a Wednesday evening, they’re gonna find someone and then there’s an application they fill out,” Hammerbeck said. “And then they could start hanging out with us and see what it’s about. (The application) goes through a vote, that’s basically it.”
Part of the reason for doing the Polar Plunge, Hammerbeck said, is to show that being a volunteer is more than just “running into burning buildings.”
“I thought would be a great idea for some camaraderie and maybe letting the public know that there’s guys out there,” Hammerbeck said. I think a lot of people look at the fire service and say, ‘I can’t do that.’ But there’s more to do than just that stuff. Anybody can come be a volunteer firefighter because you know, we need the guy that can work on a truck or the guy that wants to help out selling tickets for fundraisers, the guy that wants to make stuff for events and stuff like that.”
“Fire police watch our backs on scenes,” Domer added. “They’re really important because if we don’t have fire police, one of us has to direct traffic and watch everybody else’s back. If you have more members, more fire police, the guy that can do the physical activity can do that.”
Hammerbeck said he has been taking ice baths to help relieve pain from stiff joints and sore muscles. He convinced Riggle and Domer to give it a shot, and those experiences helped prepare them to take the plunge.
“For me the ice bath thing,” Domer said of why he agreed to sign up for the plunge. “He came in one night and said he had no shoulder no knee pain. And I’m all about that. And then we got to thinking about it. It’s like, you know, that’s pretty tough. Yeah, let’s try this out.”
For Riggle, the ask was more direct.
“He (Hammerbeck) basically says, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do the plunge. I’m doing it you’re doing it,’” Riggle said. “It’s like a brotherhood thing.”
Another confidence boost for taking the plunge? Knowing that their comrades from the Glade VFD will be right there to ensure everyone’s safety.
“If you’re not doing things correctly, I mean, things go wrong, but to know that there’s guys that are trained to do this (is reassuring),” Hammerbeck said.
The group has some ideas of what they want to wear while taking the plunge. The only sure thing would be that the attire will include the fire hats, but no speedos.
“We’re gonna try to go as one big group all wearing our fire helmets,” Hammerbeck said. “They’re all talked out of speedos.”
Regardless of any disagreement on attire, there was consensus about what all three members were most looking forward to about taking the plunge.
“Seeing the chief (Shawn Jones) go in,” they said.