Northwest Philly firefighters raise money for charity on international day of recognition

Call it a burning desire to help.

Firefighters from two of the busiest fire companies in Northwest Philadelphia filled their boots on Friday afternoon with donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

An annual initiative for the Philadelphia Fire Department and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, members of the “B” platoon of Engine 19 and Ladder 8 manned the intersection of Chelten and Wayne avenues in Germantown on Friday afternoon to solicit donations for the MDA.

In addition to being the kick-off for the PFD’s annual “Fill the Boot” campaign, Friday was also International Firefighter’s Day, a worldwide day of recognition.

A hectic camaraderie

Based at 300 E. Chelten Ave., Engine 19 and Ladder 8 are assigned to the Philadelphia Fire Department’s 9th Battalion, which is responsible for covering much of Northwest Philadelphia.

In 2011, both companies had the distinction of being the busiest in the battalion, and among the busiest companies in a department that answered almost 107,000 calls last year, according to PFD statistics. Of these, 54,485 were fire-related.

Noting the camaraderie that develops among firefighters in a busy company, Lt. John Pendergast of Ladder 8 said that life in the PFD is “always more fun in a busier station.”

But these aren’t the only statistics the PFD is interested in cultivating.

Last year, the PFD and Local 22 raised almost $168,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. This year, they have pledged to make the 2012 “Fill the Boot” Campaign the most successful ever, with a goal of $180,000.

Timothy McShea, vice president of Local 22, said the MDA was selected as the “charity of choice” for the IAFF at the 1954-1955 convention.

Asked for meaning of the MDA to the department’s rank-and-file, McShea replied that most firefighters know someone afflicted with muscular dystrophy, due in part to the street-based nature of their work.

“When you meet a couple of kids” afflicted with muscular dystrophy, he said, “you realize it’s all worth it.”

On Friday, members of Engine 19 and Ladder 8 were able to raise nearly $400 in less than two hours. Citywide totals were not available as of Monday, but McShea “guesstimated” that roughly $50,000 was raised.

In the months to come, PFD members will hit the streets three more times to raise money. The 2012 “Fill the Boot” campaign set to conclude in August, with monies raised presented to the MDA on Labor Day.

“Long before they were Jerry’s Kids, they were firefighter’s kids,” said McShea. “And they still are.”

A little-known day of recognition

From veterans to relative newcomers, Platoon B was unanimously unaware of Friday being International Fire Fighter’s Day (IFFD). Union leadership was equally unfamiliar with the event which, instituted in 1999, was triggered by the deaths of five firefighters in Australia.

May 4 was chosen as it is the feast day of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. Firefighters in most European countries celebrate this day as a “Day of Fire Service,” the IFFD website indicates.

In the United States, an annual tribute to fallen firefighters is held at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. during National Fire Prevention Week in October. This serves as the official national tribute to career and volunteer firefighters who died in the line of duty, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Last Wednesday, the City of Philadelphia held its annual “Living Flame Memorial Service” to honor those killed in the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments.

However, efforts to establish national days of recognition for active firefighters in the United States have been largely unsuccessful.

Dennis Smith, a former member of the Fire Department City of New York, author of the bestselling “Report from Engine Co. 82,” and tireless advocate for firefighter-related causes, pointed to inequities in various honorariums.

“Naming things, events, days, months have to do with political decisions, solely,” he said.

Noting oversights in the honoring of firefighters, he suggested that any efforts to establish a period of recognition would first require a “groundswell” of public interest, “an enthusiasm that comes aside from the firefighters themselves,” Smith noted.

All he better, he said, is if this enthusiasm — and funding — derives from citizens, not government.

However, many firefighters are modest when it comes to recognition and outside attention. Asked to speak to this, Smith referenced the team-orientated nature of firefighting.

“To speak well of oneself is always immodest,” he said, “especially when it is the team that accomplishes such dangerous goals.”

Connecting with those they protect

While they work as a team as firefighters and fundraisers, the members of Platoon B also assist and interact with the community in less formal ways.

After returning from the intersection of Wayne and Chelten, a young boy from the neighborhood known as “Lil’ Fred” wandered into the firehouse to say hello and bump fists with the firefighters.

Fred is a fire-station regular, dropping in a few times a week to interact and get help with his homework.

Ladder 8’s resident math-whiz, firefighter Jason Miles, indicated that Fred — a cancer survivor — doesn’t enjoy a structured home life, so firefighters at the station have taken the boy under his wing.

There are other local ties, as well.

Firefighter Michael Jackson — a name from which Jackson conceded he can never hide — is a lifelong Mt. Airy resident.

Asked if he had been inspired by neighborhood-based fire companies, Jackson related that his grandfather was on the job.

To reinforce this, he produced a gold PFD retiree badge from his wallet that belonged to his grandfather, a veteran of Engine 68 in West Philadelphia.

“I always wanted to be a firefighter,” he said. “It wasn’t a burning desire [at first], but it was always there with me.”

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