At Hamburg Fire Company, the old is new and the new is old.
Two years ago, the fire company embarked on a firehouse renovation and expansion project that included demolition of two adjacent buildings on Fourth Street, including the original firehouse that dates to 1832.
Following a ceremonial sledgehammering in April 2019, work commenced on the $1.3 million project, which was divided into three phases.
The first phase was the demolition of the two buildings to clear the lot. The second was construction of a state-of-the-art addition to the “new” three-bay engine house, which is now referred to as the old section.
Last March, after vehicles were backed into two sparkling new bays, the antique horse-drawn steam pumper, the proudest possession of one of the oldest fire companies in the nation, was displayed in a room of its own where it can be viewed through a window from the sidewalk.
The work in the third phase was to include framing out offices for the command staff, a day room for firefighters and a large training room.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and the project came to a screeching halt.
“COVID put a halt to everything,” Deputy Chief Jarrod Emes said. “For a long time we couldn’t have people in here working. So many things that COVID involved we were trying to judge how and what we’re doing.
“Plus, the big thing is the lack of being able to get materials. Two-by-fours doubled in price.”
Combined with the shutdown for over a year of fundraising events at the iconic fire company-owned Hamburg Field House behind the station, the pandemic-related skyrocketing costs of materials has pushed the goal line for completion of interior construction of the second floor out of view for the foreseeable future.
Despite being a 24/7 emergency service organization, Hamburg Fire Company is all volunteer and relies mostly on its own fundraising activities to support its operations, though it does receive annual contributions from the municipalities it serves. The three municipalities — Hamburg and Tilden and Windsor townships — in its primary service territory have levied a fire service tax on real estate to generate revenue for fire companies that serve them.
Like a lot of volunteer fire companies, Hamburg once operated an adjacent bar, referred to as the social quarters, that generated funds for vehicle and equipment purchases. But as with many fire companies, it got out of the bar business due to complexities of complying with state regulations on fundraising and liquor sales. The social quarters was one of the buildings knocked down to make room for the firehouse expansion.
For Emes, who owns an armed security and private investigation company and lives 6 miles out of town, it’s excruciating to see the unfinished offices and day room.
“You want to get it done and over with," he said. "But we're trying to make it as nice as we can for everybody, not throwing something together that you’re not proud of.”
The day room is to be a lounge for firefighters to hang out, watch TV and relax. If they are already on site, they need only to go downstairs when there’s a fire call and hop into a vehicle, like they do at large fire departments with paid personnel.
The Hamburg-area Lowe's home improvement store has agreed to donate the drywall, and the local Walmart offered to donate television sets, Emes said.
Those donations and others help, as does the volunteer labor by many of the company’s volunteers — from stringing electrical wire to wall framing. One volunteer did all the framing using metal studs as a substitute for wooden two-by-fours.
One section of the upper floor, however, is being used. Though it has no doors, the training-meeting room has finished drywall adorned with framed pictures that pay homage to the long history of community service by Union Fire Company No. 1, as the fire company was named when it was organized in 189 years ago.
The room recently was the site of a vehicle rescue training class attended by volunteers from three counties, Emes said.
“We’re at least able to function in here, and as we get things in a slow pattern, we’re going to work on that (interior construction),” Emes said.
The fire company first contemplated an addition in the mid-1980s. In the decade that followed, the need for more space for vehicles, gear and equipment storage and a large training area became more acute because of changes in the fire service.
For one thing, double stacking of vehicles — parking one in front of the other — was no longer practical because of the dwindling ranks of volunteers.
“Years ago, we were getting 30-plus members (who would respond) on a structure fire call,” Emes said.
These days, a typical fire call draws three to eight volunteers out of 25 active members, he said.
Single stacking avoids the need to shuffle vehicles.
“It’s easier if we have only two or three members that show up, rather than having to pull two or three trucks to get one out,” Emes explained.
The priority these days, especially weekdays, is simply to get an engine to a fire, even if it’s occupied only by the driver and maybe one or two other firefighters, Emes said.
All volunteer fire companies in the area contend with the same issue, a lack of volunteers available to respond during weekdays.
Mutual aid, a term referring to the pooling of resources of multiple fire companies, is how fire companies in Berks, Schuylkill and Lebanon counties, and elsewhere, ensure they have enough manpower and equipment for fires and rescue operations.
“Years ago you would have one full company and half of another on a structure fire call," Emes said. "Now you’re looking at anywhere between five and six on a first alarm.”
Besides the borough and Tilden and Windsor townships, Hamburg Fire Company responds to mutual aid requests in southern Schuylkill County to the north and as far south as Bernville and Centre Township.
The diversity of terrain, from the densely clustered center of the borough to mountain slopes, requires a range of equipment that no one fire company can house. Hamburg has a 21-year-old tower ladder truck that cost $1 million when it was purchased, Emes explained. At some point, it will need to be replaced. But at a cost of roughly $1.5 million, a purchase is not under consideration.
“It’s a lot of moving parts to this whole thing,” he said. “I wish we had an unlimited checkbook, as any department would, to put up a $5 million new building with all the bells and whistles you could pull in, but it comes at a cost.
“The days of us just being able to support it on our community-base fund drives are gone. We’re only making $1.50 on a chicken barbecue sale. That’s a lot of chickens. Hamburg can only eat so many chickens.”