A lifetime of giving

| 03 May 2012 | 01:18

WEST MILFORD — Everyone who lives in West Milford knows they rely on the six volunteer fire companies in town to come to their aid in a crisis. Many volunteer firefighters have racked up substantial time with the departments but few have had as many years on the job as Adrian Birdsall - 61 years, to be exact.

Let’s start at the beginning and follow the path that led to April 18, 2012 when Birdsall received the 2011 Mary B. Haase Lifetime Volunteer Award from West Milford Township.

In the beginning Birdsall, 74, was born and raised in the Newfoundland section of town. As a youngster he attended a one-room schoolhouse on Route 23 and played pick-up baseball games on empty fields that the kids had to mow first. It was during these early years that Birdsall first became involved with the fire department. At age eight.

In 1946 Community Volunteer Fire Company #2 (CVFC) formed a fife, drum and bugle corps and Birdsall took his first step into the brotherhood of firefighters. He played the bugle and the fife and the band marched in local parades.

In 1950 CVFC initiated a junior firefighters group for 12-18 year olds. It was like catnip to Birdsall.

“I turned 12 and immediately got involved. We’d clean the hoses and the trucks," he said. "We attended a lot of fire schools and got a lot of training, but none of the fancy stuff of today.”

The juniors were permitted to ride to a call but were kept out of the danger zone. They wore “old brown coats” and old Army helmets. At a fire scene, they’d assist in moving hoses, setting up rehab stations for the men and directing traffic.

Birdsall lived a mile away from the fire house and got there by bicycle. He usually made it in time for the first truck to roll out.

“I kept my bike on the porch. I’d jump on it, push open the door and away I’d go,” he said. One night, in his haste, he rode right through the screen door.

Drive time Time went by and in 1955 Birdsall became a senior firefighter. Now it was time for him to drive that big red truck for the first time; a 1918 La France pumper truck with wooden wheels and a temperamental disposition when pushed to go faster.

“It was something you’d been waiting for. You thought you were on top of the world,” Birdsall said.

One of his first fire calls was at Beaver Lake in Franklin. There was a Saturday night dance at the fire house but when the call came the firefighters were on their way.

“It was a long ride and we could see the glow in the sky. It felt like we’d never get there," he said. "It was a bad fire and we lost a dog,” he said.

Other fires still stand out in his mind, one being a fire in ShopRite when a cold case shorted out and set fire to a display of sneakers behind it.

“The whole aisle was on fire by the time we got there,” he said.

Growing responsibilities As he grew into his fireman’s status, so too did his personal life grow. He went to Butler High School, got a job at American Hard Rubber in Butler, got married, had children, and eventually wound up working for the West Milford Department of Public Works as a laborer.

One of his jobs was painting lines on the roads. In 1969, the federal government used this area as a traffic safety test zone. Birdsall and his crew laid down yellow and double lines where previously there were only single white lines. Imagine that on the winding, hilly roads of West Milford.

After 42-years on the job, and after transitioning from laborer to assistant director, Birdsall retired, but not from volunteer work.

In the early 1960s Birdsall moved into the town center area and joined West Milford Fire Company #6 (WMFC). Up until 1971, the firehouse was located on Union Valley Road where Town Cycle now stands. They kept three to five trucks there, on steel beam enhanced floors to bear the weight.

“When I first started, the town didn’t buy the trucks but gave companies $2,000 to $5,000. The officers were responsible, raising money with turkey dinners and other fund raisers,” Birdsall said. Since 1986, the township has taken on the purchasing responsibility.

Changes Birdsall has seen a great deal of change over the decades. The training, for example, has greatly improved.

“Back in those days, it was basic fire training. We went into smoke houses and until 1969 we had no air packs," he said. "Everything has been upgraded. We didn’t have the capabilities they have today.”

When a firefighter is out on a frigid winter night, he contends with the cold air against his lungs and icy conditions. In the heat of summer he is clad in bunker pants and coat, a helmet and 75 pounds of gear.

“It’s like getting into a sauna,” he said. The firefighters are permitted two trips into the scene and then they are medically monitored. “Both conditions have adverse effects in different directions,” he added

A lifetime of volunteering After spending almost 51 years with WMFC #6 and his earlier years at CVFC #2, Birdsall has made a lot of friends.

“Some have passed on, God bless them,” he said.

WMFC answers about 300 calls a year and, more often than not, Birdsall is behind the wheel of the first truck out. Just like when he rode his bike. If he will be out of town during the day, he notifies an officer. Due to age and health conditions, this former fire chief no longer does inside work, but being the “chauffeur” and pump operator makes him happy.

“It’s been part of my life for so many years. I get great satisfaction and I play an important part," he said. "I know the pump, I automatically know what kind of pressure they want. If we start to lose water, I get on the air horn and that’s their signal to get out," he added.

Still reliable, still dedicated, this West Milford volunteer has also spread his capabilities to other organizations. He currently serves on the West Milford Museum and Heritage Committees, the Firefighters Exempt Association and is president of the New Jersey State Firefighters Relief Association.

Now this father of three, step-father of three, grandfather of 12 and great-grandfather of five has been formally acknowledged by the township to which he has given so much.

Here’s to Adrian Birdsall – the eight year old who grew into an invaluable and well-loved member of the West Milford community. Thank you, Adrian, and congratulations.