By Jillian Risberg
From their humble beginnings in September 1919 to the day they received their charter on September 11, 1990, the Cedar Knolls Fire Department has a long and storied history of firefighting.
It dates back to their first piece of equipment, a two-wheeled handcart that used baking soda and vinegar to generate pressure and kept readily accessible in firefighter’s homes. The antique is currently on display at the retired Fireman’s Home museum in Boonton.
Other equipment followed: on March 14, 1934 they signed the contract for a 24-foot American LaFrance/Ford V-8 top mounted Pumper, the “Model T” of its time, and there was also a 1910 Webb truck.
With all this equipment and increased need for service, the department felt a new building was in order.
“Around the mid 30s they built a firehouse — we were basically working out of a barn on Mountain Avenue, which is actually the parking lot of the existing firehouse,” Chief Joe Martin says.
“They went to the government under the WPA to try to get a loan but it was only for municipal organizations. It was at that point that they decided to form a fire district.”
According to the chief, the fire district is funded through the municipal fire tax. Anyone who lives within Fire District 3 (Cedar Knolls) pays a separate fire tax that goes towards the operation of the fire department (fuel, apparatus, maintenance on the vehicles).
‘We have career personnel since the mid to late 80s, so that takes care of their salaries, upkeep on the firehouse, utilities,” he says. “The fire company is a completely separate entity, which has nothing to do with the operations of the fire department. They deal more with collecting funds for training, equipment and uniforms.”
He says once the district came in existence, they took over all the operations of the fire department.
“It’s the fire department of the district that’s celebrating the 100 years,” Martin says. “Prior to the district, it was just the fire department. Up until they started hiring career people it was strictly volunteer.”
But fire departments everywhere are having trouble recruiting volunteers, which is the reason they started hiring career personnel.
“People are working longer hours, more than one job, they just don’t have the time to be trained. And even if they get through that some people don’t have the time to (fulfill) the requirements to be a firefighter,” Martin says. “Right now training is around 200-plus hours.”
There’s a lot of involvement to being a volunteer firefighter; 100 years ago it was a different story.
“They decided whether they wanted you or not and if they wanted you, it was basically you learned as you went along. There weren’t things like the NFPA or OSHA,” Martin says. “Those places didn’t exist at the time. There was no real standard for fire training. The requirements have gotten pretty stringent in this field.”
If an individual is able to get through all that — then there’s an initial application they need to complete, undergo a background check to make sure there’s no felony arrests and get fingerprinted.
“Once they come back with all the documents and pass the background check, clear a medical physical, then we get them signed up to attend the academy,” the chief says.
The academy only runs classes in the spring and fall on the volunteer side — they do a five-week program Monday through Friday in June, which most people can’t take that time off from work to do.
“Typically in that program we get the younger kids who have some time in between high school and starting their college classes,” says Martin. “At 16 we can put them in a junior fire fighter program, which they’re allowed to do pretty much everything except operate saws.”
According to Martin, they have to give them a saw test once the volunteer turns 18. Once they pass, the department sends a letter to the academy acknowledging completion of that area of instruction and then they receive their certificate. A copy of that goes off to the Division of Fire Safety.
Those 18 years and older operate whatever it is they need to operate. They go right through and upon graduating they get their certificate.
“Once they clear everything, they have to be appointed by a board of commissioners — which is really a resolution that’s signed accepting them as a member,” the chief says. “They have a year from the date they’re appointed to complete the Fire 1 program. If they don’t complete it within that year, we have to let them go.”
They really haven’t had anyone who hasn’t gotten it done, he says. Those that come in who can do it, who want to do it, genuinely want to do it. They make the effort to follow through.
“From a volunteer perspective, you’re getting people from all walks of life.” Martin says. “People that own their own businesses, people that are working two, three jobs to make ends meet. It’s difficult in today’s economy.”
They get young kids who say, ‘this is all I’ve ever wanted to do’ and eventually move into career fire departments where this is what they’re doing for the rest of their lives.
“Then we get people who come in and say, ‘I’ve got some time, I want to volunteer, I want to help my community and I thought maybe the fire department would be a good fit for me,'” the chief says.
When it comes to demographics, the volunteers fit into a certain age bracket.
“We’re seeing a lot of people over 50 or kids that are younger than 25 who aren’t married, work Monday through Friday, still live at home, ‘I can make the commitment’ — those are the ones that are coming in,” the chief says.
Martin was born into a family of firefighters, so this is all he’s ever known.
“I’’ve been doing this 36 years now, among many other things,” he says. “I’ve been involved in all three emergency services — police, fire and EMS.”
The Cedar Knolls Fire Department is all in the family too, with nearly everyone connected somehow.
One of the department’s senior career guys, his wife just got promoted to the assistant chief of EMS (she’s been there 35-plus years) and their son is a firefighter.
“We have father/sons, father/daughters, mothers/sons, brothers/sisters, brothers and brothers, sisters and sisters, like we’re pulling from the same pool,” the chief says. “Chief Davidson, the former career fire chief — both his daughters were here, so you have the father/daughter/daughter and there’s me and my son.”
Currently they have three engines, a tower and a utility, plus two ambulances.
So many things have changed over the past 100 years.
“When you look at technology, 1934 had a 300-gallon truck, which means it could pump 300-gallons. Apparatus today you can get an engine that can pump 2,000/2,500 gallons,” Martin says, adding that even with water tanks, a 500-gallon water tank on an engine was standard for a long time, now they have 750-gallon tanks as well as 1,000, 2,000 and 2,500 tanks.
The chief says when he rewinds and sees the kind of obstacles facing guys fighting fires 100 years ago, compared to what we have now, we’re really spoiled.
“The difference is we’re in a world where there’s a lot more synthetics than there were 100 years ago,” he says. “Things burn a lot hotter and a lot quicker.”
According to the chief, even 50 years ago a small room-and-contents fire wouldn’t burn as fast and as quickly as now.
“It’s all lightweight wood construction, which is another obstacle that we have to deal with in today’s world of firefighting that they didn’t have 50 to 100 years ago,” he says.
“Now they cut down on the wood, still costing more but it’s all about saving trees. Which I get, however — lightweight wood construction cannot withstand a load, whether it’s a dead load, meaning your furniture plus whatever’s burning, plus us putting water on it as an older structure can.”
And the chief says back then the firefighters used dimensional lumber, not nominal lumber — which means that a 2×4 was two by four inches. That is not the case today.
“When you look at the statistics, we’re losing more and more firefighters — not only in fires but also due to cancers because of the stuff that we’re exposed to with all the synthetic products that are in the house,” he says. “When that stuff catches fire or heats up to a condition point; it burns very rapidly and very violently.”
That’s why firefighting in this day and age is extremely dangerous and another reason why people shy away from it, according to Martin.
“We train to try to stay ahead of it, there are signs that tell us it’s time to get out, but sometimes things just happen so quickly — guys get caught and unfortunately they lose their lives,” he says.
When it comes to the career versus volunteer aspect of it, fire doesn’t discriminate.
Still, he comes back year after year.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie in fire service,” says the chief. “Everyone’s always there for each other. There’s a certain degree of togetherness; you have the working aspect, the social aspect.”
Then there’s the excitement and adrenaline rush.
“Thirty-six years later — I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been doing this for so long,” Martin says. “For me, it’s still hard to ramp down a little bit. But it depends on the call.”
They go to hundreds of accident scenes, but he says when you receive a report of smoke or fire in someone’s house — there’s a sense of urgency to get there and put it out and do what you can to save that person’s life and property.
“For me, it’s being there to help someone,” the chief says. “In my opinion, if you were to ask any of these other guys (firefighters) they’d tell you the same thing.”
And they’re all looking forward to the centennial celebration on September 7.
“A hundred years of dedicated service to this community is a milestone,” Martin says. “Between EMS and the fire department we’re doing probably about 1900 runs a year. It’s a 24/7 operation.”