At the Skippack Fire Company: A Twenty-Year Mystery Revealed

A family tradition: Al Rissel, at right, with his grandson Matt Risell. Both are volunteer firemen with Skippack Fire Company. Al's son IMatt;s father) is a fireman in another town.

A family tradition: Al Risell, at right, with his grandson Matt Risell. Both are volunteer firemen with Skippack Fire Company. Al’s son Mike (Matt’s father) is also a fireman.

About: The Skippack Fire Company provides primary fire protection to the residents and businesses of Skippack Township.
Alarms per year: The Skippack Fire Company responds to between 250 to 275 alarms per year.
Phone: In a non-emergency, call 610.584.9995. In an emergency, call 911.
Street Address: 1230 Bridge Road (Route 113)
Mailing Address: PO BOX 1, Skippack, PA 19474
Website: Skippack Fire Company

The Skippack Blogger’s Question

I arrived at the Skippack Fire Company with a question I have wanted to ask for more than two decades.

When I first moved to Montgomery County, PA, more than twenty years ago, I came close, too close, to a fire. I woke up in my apartment to see the building across from mine, separated by only a small courtyard, go up in flame. Two children were inside, their traumatized father watching from the courtyard in sheer terror. With roaring speed, flames from the first floor engulfed the top third floor apartment. My gut instinct was to get as far away as possible as fast as possible.

How does a firefighter conquer this instinct and walk into a burning building?

Mystique of the Firefighter: The Last Noble Profession

Even in our cynical age, one occupational title still carries noble magic: Firefighter.

Gary Kratz, Deputy Chief, Skippack Fire Company

Gary Kratz, Deputy Chief, Skippack Fire Company

Whether we look with the eyes of children or adults, a person who stands ready to enter a burning building to rescue a complete stranger walks with the glow of a hero. The firehouse, the fire truck, and the fireman’s uniform, which I first saw as a boy in storybooks, represent not only the practical tools of a longstanding trade, but remain symbols of the potential for self-sacrifice that exists within humanity.

Approaching the Skippack Firehouse

I approach Skippack Fire Company on the night of an open house, part of Fire Prevention Week. The large, brightly lit hall and grounds are a showcase for fire engines and other rescue equipment, proud firefighters act as guides, children run about and parents call after them. A sense of excitement and goodwill permeates the atmosphere and the little boy inside the Skippack Blogger begins to awaken.

I seek out my contact Gary Kratz, deputy chief and public relations guy for the Skippack Fire Company: “Hey, I write this, uh, website for Skippack …”

Gary introduces me to Al Risell, who served as fire chief for seven years, president of the Skippack Fire Company for 23 years, and continues to serve as a volunteer driver for the fire company. Skippack is an all volunteer fire company.

The Skippack Blogger’s Tour

The 1926 Hale Firetruck restored by the Skippack Fire Company driven along Skippack Pike, our main street, during the annual 4th of July parade.

The 1926 Hale fire truck restored by the Skippack Fire Company going down Skippack Pike, our main street, during the annual 4th of July parade.

With low-key, matter-of-fact graciousness characteristic of people in Skippack, Al begins my tour by showing me the glistening red gem of Skippack’s collection of fire trucks, a beautifully restored 1926 Pumper (a fire engine with a hose, pumps, and water) manufactured by Hale Fire Pump of Conshohocken, PA.

Al then takes me inside the Skippack Firehouse. We enter a room off the main hall where firefighters log in after a fire call, past a wall displaying photos of fire trucks past and present, to a large conference room with a showcase filled with trophies and awards.

I interrupt Al to ask my question:

How does a firefighter conquer the instinct to flee and instead walk into a burning building?

The Firefighter’s Secret

I wait for insight into the elusive nature of courage, but Al answers in simpler terms.

“You have to train,” explains Al. “Before you can even set foot on a truck, you have to go to the Montgomery County Fire Academy, usually for two weekends. Then you go to another school where you learn how to wear an air pack. Then another school where you learn interior firefighting. As time goes on, you get more and more education.”

Al takes me outside the firehouse, across the parking lot, to a boarded-up, beaten gray building. My wife and I had seen this building before, when walking on the Skippack trail on our way to Palmer Park or Pop Pop’s Yogurt. We had thought it an abandoned building which someone forgot to tear down.

Al explains to me that this structure is a training facility for the Skippack Fire Company and other fire companies in the area, such as Worcester, Towamencin, and Perkiomen. He lets me peak inside. The interior is sparse but carefully maintained, with steps leading to upper and lower floors. Using this facility, new firefighters may learn, for example, how to perform a ladder rescue from a window. Bales of hay are used to set live fire when training experienced firefighters.

How amazing. A building that I took for abandoned is in fact an active, functioning school for heroes. And what is life itself, but a school where we learn courage.

The good people of the Skippack Fire Company: Another reason I love Skippack.

More Photos of Skippack’s All Volunteer Fire Company

Ron Wilkie of the Skippack Fire Company rides the 1926 hale Fire Truck in Skippack's 4th of July parade.

Firefighter Ron Wilkie of the Skippack Fire Company rides the restored 1926 Hale fire truck in Skippack’s 4th of July parade.

Women of the Skippack Fire Company

Women of the Skippack Fire Company: Firefighters Roberta Bracken, Donna Forsyth, and Sarah McCormick.

The Skippack Blogger's friend and neighbor, Ernesto Perez, firefighter with the Skippack Fire Company.

The Skippack Blogger’s friend and neighbor, Ernesto Perez, firefighter with the Skippack Fire Company.