Crystal Fire Department: service with pride

After 110 years of service to St. Marys and the surrounding communities, the Crystal Fire Department is still going strong. The department is owned by the City of St. Marys, but is staffed by volunteers. The 92 men and women currently with the department take care of all fire, rescue and related emergencies for the citizens of St. Marys and outlying areas. Tom Bauer, spokesperson for Crystal Fire Department, said the dedication of the volunteers is crucial to maintaining operations and noted the long hours they need to put in for training. Volunteers must complete about 244 hours of training just to begin participating in department activities, with continuous training required thereafter. There are a number of formal requirements for participation with the department's activities, but Bauer said the number of volunteer members has been consistent over the years."We take pride in what we do," Bauer said. In order to ensure that it is fully staffed, Crystal Fire Department recently dropped the minimum age for volunteering from 21 to 18 years old. Some retirees have returned as well; although they do not actively assist in fire operations, they help take care of administrative duties and maintain hoses and other equipment. "These are people who retired, and just came back and help in all aspects of the department," Bauer said, adding that the retirees are essential to daily operations. "I think that's a big misconception that people have, that we just go put out fires. It's when we come back that the work really starts - cleaning up, then putting everything back so it's ready for the next time," Bauer said. The department currently operates four engines/pumpers, one heavy rescue truck, one aerial truck, one tanker and two utility/brush trucks in its stations, as well as housing Elk County's hazardous material truck. This complement is considered the recommended number of apparatus needed to properly give the emergency protection the city requires. The City of St. Marys provides tax monies for the department's operations. This funding is supplemented by additional operating money from the St. Marys Volunteer Fire Department Relief Association. The department conducts a public fundraising drive each year, with about 95 percent of the money from those activities going to internal operations. This, along with private donations from citizens, funds the department's business and social activities. The funds are used for protective clothing, air paks and breathing equipment, radios, insurance and state fire school training. Bauer said having a volunteer fire department, as opposed to departments where members receive salaries, saves city residents about one million dollars, or 5 mills of tax, annually. Crystal Fire Department Treasurer Paul Malone said the fire department's rating with the Insurance Services Office (ISO) can also affect local finances. The ratings are used to determine an area's property values and insurance rates for home and business owners. The key areas used to determine the rating are equipment owned, firefighter training and response rates, and pumping and water hauling capabilities. The Crystal Fire Department currently has an excellent 3/9 ISO rating. Bauer noted, however, that the volunteer members of the Crystal Fire Department are interested in more than saving taxpayers money. "There is that cost savings, but our personnel do it because they want to do it, because they want to be involved, because they want to serve the community," Bauer said. Each year, the department presents the city with a long-range plan, including prospective truck and equipment replacement, operating issues and maintenance and funding requirements. Bauer said the department's current needs include the replacement of the air paks firefighters use to breathe during operations. The upgrade to new air paks to replace the old ones is underway and is expected to take two to three years. Additionally, CDF's Engine No. 12 is 35 years old. "When you keep something that long, it's time (to replace it)," Bauer said, adding that a typical engine/pumper costs between $425,000 and $450,000, while an aerial truck costs about $810,000. The department is also hoping to upgrade its hands-on training tower on West Creek Road. The tower was built around 1976. Malone said the department responds to various calls in addition to fire emergencies. These include public services, such as alleviating water coming into basements after heavy rainfall or flooding, ensuring the safety of school bonfires and conducting fire drills for area schools and businesses. The department's fire police help secure the scene at fires or accidents, assist with crowd control, and re-route traffic. There are currently eight fire police who help supplement the activities of city police officers. "Our first obligation is to get the fire truck to the scene," Malone said. Last year, Crystal Fire Department responded to 301 calls, including calls to surrounding communities in Elk, Cameron and McKean counties due to mutual aid agreements with other departments and municipalities. "Whenever we're called out, we go," Bauer said.The department's rescue squad also operates the "Jaws of Life," which most people associate with extrication of passengers at the scene of a vehicular accident. The jaws can also be used for trench or building collapses, industrial and farm accidents, and to rescue firefighters who find themselves in a dire situation. Malone said the jaws are just one piece of equipment that comes into play during a rescue operation; some of the most important equipment is what the firefighters wear or carry. This includes a turnout coat and boots, tools and the all-important, self-contained air pak system that allows them to breathe properly. "With all of the necessary equipment on board, firefighters are carrying 50 extra pounds or more," Malone said. Bauer said the top causes of fires in the area are electrical issues and unattended candles, cooking apparatus and cigarettes. He encouraged residents to use safe practices when dealing with items or situations that could start a fire, and said October, which is National Fire Prevention Month, is a good time to check smoke detectors and review homes for potential fire hazards. "Take a look around. Are there any unsafe things going on? Anytime is a good time to do these things, but Fire Prevention Month is a good reminder," Bauer said. The fire department boasts the first piece of motorized fire equipment in Elk County, a 1917 pumper that still works. It is primarily used in parades and other public ceremonies today. There are three fire chiefs elected by members: Bill Kraus currently serves as chief. Mike Kraus is the deputy chief, and Tom Kerchinski serves as assistant chief. Bob Asti heads up fire prevention activities, which often take the form of education sessions and presentations to local school students. Bill Bauer, a 50-year member of the department, is secretary of the Relief Association. The Crystal Fire Department will honor members for their years of service at its awards banquet on Oct. 23. Malone, who has been with the department for over 43 years himself, said there is a reason why so many volunteers have decades of service as firefighters. "It gets into your blood, and you can't get rid of it," said Malone.