In his two decades of service with the Southard Fire Department Chief Steve Hadgkiss has seen a lot while serving his community.
From powerful fires that have taken people's lives to the department's annual rides with Santa Claus throughout their district, Hadgkiss said he is glad to be part of such a special house.
Located right in the heart of the Route 9 corridor Hadgkiss said the bumper to bumper traffic in front of their house is not as big of an obstacle as people might think. "Route 9 really for us isn't the issue at all," he said.
In the Southard district, he said there are neighborhoods like Glen Arden that have dead ends or narrow streets which can present problems for their equipment. Even in the tightest jams, after all this time he said the members know what they have to do to fight the fires no matter the situation.
The Southard department has a full contingent of 50 members including four full time members. The chief said these days having large numbers and specialties like hazmat and dive teams is not an easy thing to do. "Nowadays volunteer services in general, you've got a hard time getting people to volunteer their time, especially when they're working 12 hours a day six or seven days a week" he said.
While most departments are strictly volunteer Hadgkiss said the full time members do more than just fight fires. Their other duties can include helping with EMS calls throughout the township and doing the maintenance work on the department's equipment. Other departments rely on their volunteers to handle much that responsibility in addition to their other jobs.
John Bunnicont, who in five years with the department has worked his way up to president said he had not originally planned to be a firefighter. "A friend of mine was here already," he said. "I was hanging out here so this guy (Hadgkiss), said why don't you just join."
In a time when new members are critical for all first responder units, Hadgkiss said getting guys like Bunnicont is important to help the department serve their district. "It's awesome because he's a bull," he said. "You put him to work and he gets everything you need done."
Hadgkiss said it is important for everyone to work together to make sure the department is efficient. "The firehouse doesn't look great because our mothers work here," he said with a laugh. "It looks great because the membership does it."
The department's chief is also proof that people join for a variety of reasons. "I was the punk kid getting into trouble," he said. The chief at the time was Lou Memmolo Sr. who had also been Hadgkiss' soccer coach when he was five years old. After his former coach and his father spoke, Hadgkiss said it was all but a done deal. "The night I was originally supposed to come in I called Louie and just told Louie I wasn't going to join. He said I'm coming to your house to get you, so I joined."
He said he is still thankful that Memmolo made that commitment to him. "In all fairness to everybody it was the best thing I ever did," he said. "I've done Scuba, hazmat, awesome stuff. We've done really great community stuff."
Along with their work in the township Hadgkiss said they have also gone outside its borders when called upon. Following Hurricane Katrina, he said they raised money and collected items to be brought down for the recover effort and he was one of the guys driving the truck. "We try to just get out there and do things."
Bunnicont said getting people to volunteer is one thing, it is a different matter to find people willing to run into a fire when most people would rather run away from the blaze. "It's kind of something you just kind of have," he said. "You can only do so much to someone else to make them want to do something. It's a confidence booster. You tell them you're right behind them and you're going to be fine."
Having served as long as he has, Hadgkiss said he has seen how important it is for the veterans to help the newer members. "We depend on the guys that have been there to teach the younger guys," he said.
When they find themselves in absolute darkness fighting a fire Hadgkiss said training and experience can be invaluable assets. "You really do end up falling back on your training and the training of others," he said. "Some people will just get a gut feeling and say something just ain't right here and back out and the roof will fall in."
In a town as big as Howell and with their district bordering neighboring towns like Lakewood and Jackson, Hadgkiss said it is important for all the local departments to work together. "I think the fire service in Howell is pretty good as far as sticking together and helping each other and calling on each other," he said.
When it comes to the other departments in town Hadgkiss said there is a strong camaraderie especially because many of the officers "have come up together so you have a working relationship," he said. "If I get called to or it's not my district anymore. It's 'hey chief what do you need.' Everybody in town does the same thing."
Not only do they work together on fire calls, they also train together which Hadgkiss said also helps them when the fire alarm sounds.
In recent months the department has gotten new neighbors as the township . Hadgkiss said he does not believe having the administration will change much for them and could also make things easier in some ways. The Fire Bureau r but Hadgkiss said they saw them regularly even when they were on . "Which is really good because if we're out on a call and we see something we can tell them you might want to check that," he said. "They're really good at taking care of that stuff."
The Southard house also includes a hall that can be rented for events with less than 250 people and has also been used to host other fundraisers like psychic nights and breakfast with Santa during the holidays.
To learn more about the department or the hall or becoming a member check out their website.