When Duty Calls

Bob Forsyth, 83, spends his time volunteering for the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Departmen.

Fit For Action: when a fire alarm sounds in Martinsville, Bob Forsyth, 83, dons 30 pounds of gear and responds with his fellow volunteers.
Photo by Frank Veronsky

Bob Forsyth jogs between five and eight miles a day, five days a week, to keep fit as a volunteer firefighter with the Martinsville Volunteer Fire Department.

“I used to do 10, 12, 14 miles, but I cut back in recent years,” says Forsyth, 83.

Forsyth, who is married and has a grown daughter, no longer runs into burning buildings or scales tall ladders. But when a fire alarm sounds, the Bridgewater resident—a former chemical engineer who still does some consulting—heads to Fire Station 2, dons his bunker gear (the heavy jacket, helmet, hood, gloves, pants and boots collectively weigh 30 pounds or more) and climbs aboard a responding engine.

“I work with the driver and the pump operator,” says Forsyth. “I help the firefighters get hoses, air packs and other equipment to the actual scene of the fire.”

The mandatory retirement age for career firefighters in New Jersey is 65, but it’s up to individual municipalities to determine at what age to curtail a volunteer’s firefighting duties. Some have age restrictions; others do not.
The exact number of older volunteer firefighters across the state is hard to pin down. The New Jersey State Firemen’s Association (NJSFA) estimates that roughly 40 percent of its 70,000 members are between the ages of 70 and 90; only about 5 percent of this group actually go on calls.

“Firefighting is for young individuals,” says NJSFA president and Secaucus resident George H. Heflich Sr., who, at age 76, is a 54-year veteran of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department and one of the department’s three volunteers over 70. Heflich still drives an engine and responds to calls for the department.

Most, if not all, senior volunteers work in a non-firefighting capacity. Bill Pinckney, a 76-year-old firefighter with the Lodi Volunteer Fire Department, helps run communications from the station during a call, supervises firehouse maintenance and advises the chief on day-to-day business.

“They know the water system in the town. They know the streets. They may know a building that’s been there for years,” says Lodi volunteer fire chief Matthew Lombardi, 44, about the four 70-plus firefighters under his command.

Pinckney says fighting fires has become much safer since he first began 53 years ago. Otherwise, not much has changed. “You’ve got to put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” he says. “That’s about it.”

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