At 91 years old, Jack Fleischman’s day usually starts with a cup of coffee at the oldest volunteer fire company in continuous operation in the state.
Members of Independent Hose Company in Frederick say you could set a watch to his routine. They tell the rookies to make sure the pot is on before 6:30 a.m. When Jack walks into the room, someone offers him a place to sit. If they don’t hear from him, a member will drop by his house. He means that much to them.
Fleischman doesn’t ask for special treatment, but it’s something his fellow firefighters believe he’s earned.
With COVID-19 restrictions in place, Fleischman can’t socialize at the station like he used to, but his friendships remain strong.
Fleischman joined the department at 16 years old in 1945. Before the World War II draft took most of the men, you had to be at least 18 to join.
He’d been around the station from a young age. His father Earl was a member and his mother Ella was part of the auxiliary.
“It takes a lot of time and you’ve got to be dedicated,” Fleischman said.
As a young man, he had plenty of examples of dedication to look to. There’s been a Fleischman from his family at Independent Hose since it formed in 1818.
The equipment Fleischman used as a young firefighter was quite different from today. They didn’t have state-of-the-art breathing apparatus, they had canister air masks. And if you did any real work while wearing one, he said, you couldn’t breathe well. The turnout gear was stiff and heavy, made from cotton duck fabric and canvas.
When Fleischman joined, they had two engines. Now, Independent Hose has that, plus six more apparatus.
Fleischman was drafted at 21 to serve in the Korean War. He suffered a shrapnel injury and lost sight in one eye, which kept him from making a career of firefighting.
However, as a volunteer, he proved he could fight fires as well as anyone.
In the 1970s, a young Chuck Handley responded to his first working fire. He was nervous, but reassured that veteran firefighter Jack Fleischman was on the hose line with him. “We always said Jack was the first in and the last out,” said Handley, now 63 and second vice president of the company.
Fleischman remembers that fire. It was at a bowling alley.
As Fleischman crawled up a bowling lane, his hand plunged through a hole that had burned in the floor. It was what they’d been searching for — the source of the fire. Fleischman called it a stroke of luck.
Handley looked up to Fleischman, but he, too, would grow up to become someone young firefighters admired. He’s been president and chief of the company.
Independent Hose Chief Brian Grossnickle said people like Fleischman and Handley “paved the road for what the fire service is now in Frederick County.”
Since he was a child, Handley knew he wanted to be a firefighter like his dad Charlie. “Kids hung out at the firehouse back then.”
Now, since there are more opportunities to get paid fighting fires, you don’t see as many volunteers, Handley said.
A positive change over the years has been in training and equipment. Pagers notify first responders of an emergency. Turnout gear protects them better. Thermal imaging cameras can locate victims.
“My first helmet was kind of like a tin helmet, then you went to a plastic helmet and none of that was really fire resistant,” said Frank Davis, of Vigilant Hose Company in Emmitsburg.
Davis has been running calls for 43 years, since he was 18. He is the emergency medical services captain at Vigilant Hose and a past chief. His father Allen inspired him to get into the fire service.
“Once it gets in your blood, it’s there,” Davis said.
Before the 911 system, the restaurant his parents owned, The Palms Restaurant, blew the siren to rally Emmitsburg’s firefighters, Davis said.
Alan Hurley, chief of Rocky Ridge Volunteer Fire Company, remembers when members used to fight to get on an engine.
“If you were a little slow, you weren’t on it,” said Hurley, 65.
Hurley was drawn to firefighting when he began dating his future wife Bonny. He got to know her father Robert Albaugh, then an active member of Rocky Ridge.
Hurley has been volunteering for 44 years and is president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, which encompasses 25 area fire companies.
Hurley’s memories of training are a bit hazy, literally. He recalls training in an old box trailer. They’d fill it with smoke and send you in blindfolded with your breathing apparatus, he said.
He said his basic fire training took about 60 hours. Now, that training is closer to 100 hours.
“It’s actually more knowledge-based than back when I took it,” he said, adding he believes these changes are for the better.
Before they can start tackling fires, hopefuls have to prove they are physically capable.
About 30 years ago, Edie Rinehart had a lot riding on the agility test.
Rinehart, now 63 and retired, became the first female firefighter hired by the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services.
She’s also been a volunteer, dating back to the mid-1970s at Wolfsville, where she still volunteers, though she’s taken a break recently for her health.
Rinehart was proud to be the first woman to pass the test, though she noted, “I didn’t go for it because I was the female, [it was] mainly because I was competitive against my brother”—her twin, in fact, Daniel Hughes.
Rinehart’s brother, father Ernest and mother Margaret were all volunteers. She even met her husband Robert in the service.
Another constant in the fire service, unfortunately, has been the toll the job can take. Handley remembers when eight members of the Burkett family perished in a 1977 house fire.
“It really sticks in your mind,” he said. “Stress in the fire service is very high.”
To better understand firefighters, he recommends locals visit their fire station — when the pandemic isn’t a threat —and get to know them.
Though the job is tough, firefighters will continue to answer the call.
“It’s just so fulfilling,” Rinehart said. “Even if you don’t see what you’ve done for people, you know you’ve helped them.”
To become a volunteer, contact your local fire station or visit the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association online at fcvfra.com.
Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter: @MaryGraceKeller