BROOKVILLE — Brookville Volunteer Fire Company’s new fire chief, Chris Henry has been a volunteer in fire companies for more than 20 years.
He is a third generation firefighter. ‘My grandfather, my father, neighbors, uncles, cousins,” he lists as all those around him that led the way to being a firefighter, calling it a “family business.”
He began as a firefighter at Pine Creek Volunteer Fire Department but left the fire service for a few years before moving just north of Brookville on Route 36 a few years ago. It was after that move that he joined Brookville VFC four years ago.
The role of fire chief is not new to Henry. He was fire chief at Pine Creek before he took a hiatus from fire service. “I did it before and then they wanted me to do it again,” he said of the Brookville VFC firefighters.
He was elected to the one-year term within the past week. Prior to taking on the role of chief, Henry was the third assistant fire chief.
Brookville VFC has 30 members on the active duty list, although Henry says not everyone is very active, “but they’re all great.”
He has reason to be proud of them, as 2019 stats shared with Brookville Borough Council members Monday showed a four minute response time and an average of eight members per call.
Henry says such a statistic is “very great for a volunteer company.
“When you do the year-end alarm tallies – we keep track of our dispatch time, on-route time and on-scene time. You take the minutes between dispatch and route and you average them out,” he explained as to how the statistic is determined. Henry noted that a good many of the firefighters live close to the fire station which has been one factor in the quick response time.
Henry wants to increase training this year which fits into the number one goal for every fire chief, which is “to make sure all the members come back safe and sound from every alarm.
“That’s a big priority,” he says of that number one goal. He also wants to “increase our capabilities through training.”
When asked if there is any particular area he would like to see improvement in, he doesn’t hesitate to say “everything. Everybody can always get better.”
Training is important in firefighting. Members of the Brookville VFC train the “first Monday of the month is our meeting, and then the other three are training nights. And then we do some weekend, Saturday trainings. Plus any classes that get put on throughout the county for state training,” he says.
They will also utilize the fire school building in DuBois if they want to go there as a company. “Currently we have two members taking the basic fire school up there.”
Henry says the firefighters at Brookville VFC has a “good variety of training. We do have water rescue awareness training, vehicle rescue, other specialized rescue and of course there’s lots of different fire fighting type classes that you can get training on.” They even have to be prepared for calls to Interstate 80. Henry noted the fire company has its own section there for which it is responsible. They are also trained for some hazardous material responses.
“Every firefighter, every fire company takes about basically the same training. You gotta have the basics of hazardous material is incorporated into the basic fire school. And there’s different levels of that on how far the individual firefighter wants to go,” he says. “They get their initial awareness level through the basic fire” training.
Being a firefighter comes with a lot of commitment. Coming from a family of firefighters, Henry said “it was just expected. Lots of meals, lots of events, lots of things missed.”
Even with knowing that going into it and everything he’s experienced in his 20 plus years, Henry says, “Sure, helping the community is always worth it.”
“It’s a dying breed – volunteer firefighters...the numbers of firefighters have dropped off drastically so if anybody has any interest in it. We have to encourage it.”
In looking at the future of rural volunteer fire companies, Henry won’t say they have to switch to a paid firefighter system but he does say the “something will have to be done. Something will definitely have to be done.”
The training a firefighter must complete has gotten more expensive and takes more hours. While it is the same basic training overall, Henry does note that now “they throw in all the other things now, especially since no 9/11 happened. They throw all that into it also and increase which increase the hours, which increases the commitment from the members. And, which puts stress and pressure on them being volunteers to have to take time away from their personal life.”
That time away from family is great when the requirements of the station are factored in. “They take care of the place, the maintenance on the trucks, we have fundraisers, meetings, and then on top of that take the training — and the training never stops.
“Rightfully so because you never stop learning. The community depends on us and requires us to be ready for everything,” he said.
So what does the role of fire chief encompass?
“I call the overall command of the fire scene, to give the direction to the all the firefighters,” Henry said. It’s his responsibility to keep firefighters safe and determine if a fire is too dangerous for a firefighter to enter a structure. He also handles any paperwork, such as alarm incidents, for the station. However, the station has “a rank structure so when I’m not there the highest ranking officer is in command of the call and has to fill out all the paperwork.”
Being a fire chief “is basically a full-time job.” He doesn’t think about the time it takes, he just does it. He is a paramedic and that job helps in that he works 24-hour shifts 10 days a week, which allows him to spend the needed time at the fire station taking care of his responsibilities of chief.
He was a paramedic years ago when he was fire chief at Pine Creek VFD. “It helps out because you have more days to be able to put in at the firehouse than a lot of regular normal eight hours, five days a week jobs.”
Henry doesn’t act as a paramedic when he’s called out with the fire company. His job on those calls is to keep everyone safe and to have the best ending possible given the situation. “Especially with fires and stuff you have to keep your eye on what’s going on, and where everybody’s at, at any given time right.”
When he has downtime in October and November, Henry is an avid hunting. He goes archery hunting. “That’s where I get my peace when I’m in that bow stand in October, November.” He also spends time with friends and family. “My wife is very supportive of me,” he said.
“There was an old-time fire chief years ago (who) made a comment. He said, ‘Behind every great fire chief there’s an even better wife,” he says, adding that his wife is also a member of the Brookville VFC Ladies Auxiliary. “We have a great ladies auxiliary here; they support us very well.
“Every day when we go on calls, I, not as the fire chief, just as a firefighter or human being am amazed at what the people here do. And what people do in every fire company and EMS and police across the country. Where would we be if we didn’t have them? When you get on a truck and go on a call with lights and sirens you know you’re in jeopardy.”
Henry had a message for the public – “When you hear the fire whistle blow or they see the fire truck out and about, even if the lights aren’t on, they don’t have to necessarily say a prayer. Just stop and think where would we be if those people weren’t there.”
Brookville’s firefighters are ready to answer the call. “You call us and we go and we help. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, where you’re from, we’ll be there to help. Call the fire company, we come.”