The current home of Milton Township's volunteer fire department might give you the wrong impression. Tucked in the back half of "Lakers Food Market" -- a convenience store/gas station just off Interstate 76 -- it might tempt you to equate volunteer with amateur. Not a chance.
These firefighters are serious, well trained and led by enviable business acumen and a sense of family -- in many cases, literally.
Their roster of about 30 volunteers includes three husband-and-wife teams and two father-and-stepson pairs. The chief, Rick Pellin Jr., is joined by his father, mother, brother and wife.
First Lieutenant Harold Maynard's son plans to join him when he turns 18 next year. And firefighters Mike and Cheryl Bruss have a 15-year-old daughter, Kay, who's an auxiliary member.
"They say it's in the blood," said Chief Pellin. Paid $2 a mission and $2 a training session, they're sure not in it for the money. Lucky for Milton Township.
And the township is lucky in other ways, too. The chief's degree is in business and it has served the volunteer fire department and the community well. Pellin and equipment officer Rick Daniels have engineered a slew of grant awards, requesting and receiving thousands of dollars.
Building the department: What's even more impressive is how they've spent the funds so far. North Jackson's fire department got the ball rolling by selling the Milton crew a pumper truck for $1. Milton's volunteers also scrounged hoses and "turn out" gear to include boots, helmets and jackets. With 10 firefighters already certified, they were ready to go when they officially became a volunteer fire department in January 2000.
In describing their original gear, Pellin said, "It wasn't suit and tie. It was ratty-jeans-and-a-T-shirt quality, but it worked." But the township trustees were impressed. Fifty thousand dollars' worth of equipment had come their way for pennies on the dollar.
Sam Awadallah, who owns Lakers, was the next to step up. He offered the back half of his facility as a makeshift department -- free of rent. (Only recently has the chief insisted on paying Awadallah, who is also a volunteer firefighter with the department.)
Pellin initiated fund-raisers as well, raising money via Super Bowl sub sandwich sales, a golf outing and casino night.
As the grant money came in, the firefighters retired some of their dated equipment and replaced it with safer gear, and slowly built up their firefighting and rescue capabilities. They bought a pumper/tanker and rescue vehicle from Washingtonville, again getting a good deal. They managed to get a grant for better software to report fires and keep records.
Levy support: By late summer of their first year, they approached the trustees and asked for a 2-mill levy to be put on the ballot. In November, it passed.
"We thought it would take more time for the community to respect us," Pellin said. "The trustees were a great help, we got so much support from them."
Last year, according to Pellin, the volunteers responded to 250 calls for various services. They average about one structural fire every other month.
When a call comes in to their dispatcher, who is at Pellin Ambulance Service (owned by the Pellins), each firefighter's beeper is called. All available volunteers rush to the station, go to their uniforms -- boots are already tucked into pant legs beneath a shelf with each helmet -- and take up their positions on either the pumper/tanker or rescue van.
Pellin and his team have attacked the development of this department with passion for two reasons. One is that friends and family are safer with them there. The other is that they expect the township to grow -- a lot. "We want to build for the future," Pellin explained. Next goal: a real fire station.