New firefighter completes his admirable journey

Volunteer fire departments struggling with manpower shortages need to remember the name Christopher Martin.

Martin is one of the five men sworn into service with the Altoona Fire Department on Monday; his appointment came after an experience in his early years serving as a volunteer fireman in the State College area.

Although from a service standpoint Martin is no higher up on the city department’s roster than the other four new firefighters – Brad Clerk, Brandon Davis, Brandon McElhinny and Justin Smithmyer – there’s a message in Martin’s acquired interest in firefighting that shorthanded volunteer departments should consider using to bolster their ranks.

That message deals with the importance of an early introduction to the fire service. Volunteer fire units need to find creative ways to introduce young men – and young women – to this important community role and, once that’s done, continue to build their interest and involvement until they reach the age when they hopefully will become full participants in department operations.

As an article in Tuesday’s Mirror recounted, it was a ride-along with his father, a volunteer firefighter, that cemented in Martin a determination to make firefighting a permanent part of his life.

He was enveloped by the intensity of the scene that night – a New Year’s Eve – when four teens chose to “celebrate” by setting fire to churches and barns.

Now Martin is set to make firefighting his life’s work on a full-time basis after two months of upcoming training and four months of probationary service when he and the others will be participating in all of the department’s operations.

Today, when many area young people have their sights set on going out of town to colleges or trade schools and then moving to other locales for employment, it is harder to recruit for their hometown volunteer fire company.

Decades ago, it was more common for boys to be looking for jobs in or near their hometown, enabling them to follow their father’s or other relatives’ footsteps toward protecting their community and its residents.

Now, with the need for many young people to move elsewhere to pursue their career ambitions, even young people who while growing up became junior firefighters often find it impossible to continue on to full volunteer responsibilities.

Unlike when many of their parents and grandparents were young, this no longer is an 8-to-5 workday era for more and more people, and many have employment responsibilities that take them far from home each day – and far from being able to respond to emergencies.

Meanwhile, many potential volunteer firefighters pass up service because they don’t have the time to participate in volunteer firefighter training schools and don’t have the free hours to spend at the fire station, not only for interacting with other department members, but for equipment and station maintenance duties as well.

Then there’s the time volunteers must spend helping to raise the money needed to keep the department functioning, plus for equipment purchases.

Volunteer departments don’t need to imitate Martin’s father’s decision on that troubling New Year’s Eve.

But remembering Christopher Martin’s name and his early exposure to what volunteer firefighting is about might help some departments to, in unique ways, successfully address the manpower shortages now burdening them.

The role of fire departments in our communities is too crucial not to try.