Vera Cruz Chief Closes in on 50 Years of Service

Vera Cruz Chief Closes in on 50 Years of Service

Founded in 1942, Vera Cruz Fire Co. at 4093 Main Road West in Emmaus is one of 42 fire departments servicing the greater Lehigh Valley. The company’s oldest active member recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Like most fire companies serving the area, Vera Cruz depends on volunteers.

“We’re the only station in Lehigh County that has two tankers,” said longtime fire chief Joe Sherman. “So anytime someone needs water,
we get called.”

“I was in for 25 years, then about four or five years out, and now in for another nine, so 34 years as chief altogether,” said Sherman. “In that time, a lot of things have changed. When I started [in 1972], we got seven calls for the whole year. Now, it’s well over 200.”

Besides serving the eastern part of Upper Milford Township and Upper Saucon Valley, Vera Cruz Fire Co. backs up other departments as needed and is also responsible for a 10 mile stretch of the turnpike – which practically hovers over the fire station – and protects industrial sites such as Buckeye Pipe Line Co. 

“We’re all here to do the same job and work together,” Sherman said of coordination with neighboring fire companies.” “If somebody needs help we help them, and if we need help, they help us. We’re here to protect life and property and that’s what we’re here for – to do the best we can with what we have.”

The fire company’s efforts are supported by special operations teams such as Hazmat, animal rescue, drug team flyovers and police assistance, Sherman said, “all kinds of stuff we didn’t have 49 years ago.”

Vera Cruz Fire Co. currently has about 30 active volunteers.

“When pagers go off, everybody responds to the station except for the fire chief,” Sherman explained. “We get to the trucks and go to the scene. Nobody is paid – everybody’s volunteer.”

Vera Cruz Fire Co. is funded partially through fundraising mailers sent out to township residents once a year and also through ongoing fundraisers such as pizza drives. “Whatever it takes to keep things going,” said Sherman. The bulk of funding comes from township coffers.

“If the township wouldn’t have put money away for major equipment, I don’t know how we’d manage to keep up,” said Sherman. “We can’t do it with pizza sales. There have been a lot of new challenges since I started.”

The fire company recently purchased 14 new self-contained-breathing-apparatus units at a total cost of around $100,000, Sherman said. And consider that a pumper truck – necessary for fighting fires when hydrants do not provide adequate water supply or may be unavailable – cost $7800 in 1962, $125,000 in 1982 and $450,000 in 2014.

“We’re lucky to have it all, but people don’t realize what the cost is,” said Sherman. “When I started we had two trucks and now we have seven.

With the exception of major municipalities like Reading and Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, most local fire stations are not staffed by paid employees, Sherman said. “The rest of our emergency responders don’t stay at the fire stations.”

One exception to that rule, Sherman said, is whenever there’s heavy snow on ground volunteers will stay over at the station in order to make sure trucks can get out if a call comes in. Another exception to on-property staffing, he said, is frequent basketball pickup games as the fire station among some of the younger volunteers.

Cell phones have also changed the game, Sherman said, as well as more-strict environmental protocols for incidents such as toxic spills. More agencies tend to get immediately involved in a single incident, he said. “It’s changed a lot since I’ve been involved.”

Another major consideration has been the types of materials fire departments now have to contend with, Sherman said, “anything from car fires all the way up house challenges.”

Cars that were once constructed mostly of metal are now comprised of toxic composite materials. Slate roofs are now flammable shingles. Asbestos siding is now vinyl. Wood flooring has been replaced by synthetic carpet. Some vehicles run on explosive propane, and electric batteries can be highly explosive if hit with water. Even the stuffing in a chair can be deadly, Sherman said.  “One chair can kill a room full of people in 15 minutes if you’re breathing all that stuff in.”

In order to keep up with the times, Vera Cruz Fire Co. conducts training every Tuesday night from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and holds meetings on the first Monday of every month to keep all volunteers informed and plugged in.

Sherman tipped his fire helmet to three members who have put in more than 60 years at Vera Cruz Fire Co., two who had recently passed on. “Cyrus Mohr is our longest living active member. We just lost our former fire chief who had 64 years in and our chaplain who had 64 or 65 years in. We’re lucky to have had them.”

Sherman, whose son and grandson have both served as volunteer firemen, said he hopes families can keep the community service alive, “because at some put we’re going to lose the volunteer system – people just don’t volunteer like they used to.

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