For Freewood Acres Fire Chief William Donahue and his brother and assistant chief Bobby, being at the firehouse is like being in their second home. After all, for as long as they can remember their father Donald was a member of the department and has the building's memorial hall named in his honor.
Because the brothers have such a strong family connection to the department, they said they try to make everyone feel like they are an extended family while serving a vital role for their community.
Founded back in 1951, even after 60 years of service, Freewood Acres is one of the newest members of the Howell Fire Bureau. With a total of 24 members, including 15 active members, William said there is plenty of experience to call upon when the tones go off.
As with the rest of the fire bureau, Freewood Acres serves a defined area that stretches a total of 15 square miles. Their service area includes from West Farms Road to Aldrich Road and from the Jackson border to the area near Howell High School and Middle School North. Even in that limited area, Donahue said last year they got a total of 344 calls with many of them being mutual aid to help neighboring departments. One of the more recent calls was a barn fire on Road where they were one of several houses to respond.
While they may not have the large numbers of some other departments, the Donahue brothers said they have what they need to help serve the community. "This is a small group of people that bands together when we really have to," William said. "We're not fighting fires with 50 to 60 guys. We're fighting fires with 10." Not counting the drivers of the trucks that report to a scene and he said that number drops to between four and six.
Just as important as what they do, he said is how they do it. "We grew up here so we know it's supposed to be family," he said. "When family's in trouble you're supposed to help them and we try to keep that going."
Since the time when their father first started with the department, they have seen the area the firehouse covers change greatly. The chicken coops that they say once lined the roadway have now largely been replaced by developments over the years bringing more people to the community they serve.
Having served as chief for 18 years, William said he has been able to combine his work as a professional fire fighter at Fort Monmouth with his time at Freewood Acres to do both jobs better.
In his time with the department, he said he has seen the good and the bad of firefighting and experienced some challenges himself. "We've had good fires where we've saved people and we've had fires where we just can't get there in time," he said.
Even after all these years, he said depending on the fire when the tones go off he still gets a rush of adrenaline when the tones sound. At the same time, his experience he said also helps him to prepare for the fire and help the members of the department do the same.
That experience also comes with some stories he will never forget. That includes a fire in 1984 when he said he stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated in the ambulance and one three years later on Lemon Rd. when he went crashing through a floor into the basement of a house. "I've had things that as chief my goal is to never let that happen to anybody else," he said. "I fell through a floor, I stopped breathing. These things happen in a fire service. If I can stop them from happening I've done my job."
Even after falling into the basement and being surrounded by fire, Donahue said he never considered walking away from the job. "I can tell you what a hot dog feels like when it's being barbecued," he said with a laugh. It was the words of a former fire inspector that he said helped get him back on the truck not long after being released from the hospital. "He told me flat out to get back on the horse," he said. "He said if you don't get back in a fire you never will. I will and I have. If you don't get back and do it you'll be so scared you'll never do it again."
His brother said it is their experience and training that has helped them get through the hard parts of the job. "It goes back on training and experience. You're not going nuts because you have a fire call," he said. "If you're doing this long enough it's, 'okay, we're doing this again.' You're not going nuts, you're not running and you're not going crazy."
Like many of the local departments, Freewood Acres also offers a junior firefighter program. Those area residents who are 16-years-old or older are encouraged to go to the firehouse to learn what is involved in the process. While they learn about the job and the house, William said there are some things juniors will not do. "The biggest thing is we can't put a juvenile in any kind of danger," he said. "We can teach them, but they can't handle a charged hose line, they can't handle any saws. Anything that's dangerous they can't do."
Bobby added that while learning about fire safety is important, they also stress the importance of schoolwork. "Our policy here is that it's also schooling and education," he said. "We make our juniors carry at least a 'B' average." His brother added that the education of their juniors is critical to their success with the department. "We tell them that school is first. Go home and do your homework, the fire department will still be here."
If and when they become active members, attendance at the house is more important, but both said for juniors they need to find that balance. "Because you're a junior we care more about you getting your high school diploma than you being up here learning," William said.
Finding people who want to join as active members can also be a challenge. In order to become a member the person must be 18-years-old, go through a background check and be voted on by the members of the house. After that they go through a rigorous training program at the Monmouth County Fire Academy. For some people, it is the training that William said scares them off from joining the department. "Being a volunteer how do you explain to your wife or kids or anyone I have to give up the next 11 weekends to go to fire fighting school," he said.
Fortunately, he said people continue to fill the department's ranks. "Out of our member's ranks probably eight or nine of them have been here for 15 years or more and they're not going anywhere," he said.
No matter what their numbers are, Freewood Acres is one of the houses in the Howell Fire Bureau. While the departments might keep to their own on a regular basis, they are always ready to do what has to be done. "When the tones go off you do what you gotta do," he said. "You work together."
For many Howell residents, the fire district they live in may not even be something they are aware of. William said when the fire commissioner elections come up in February they are explaining to residents where they should go to vote. And the vote, he said, is for a budget, which covers a very limited scope of items. "The budget is strictly for financing the district for fire prevention," he said. That includes items like trucks, gear and other equipment. All other items are funded through the departments themselves.
The Freewood Acres Fire Department holds meetings most Monday nights except for holidays for anyone looking for more information or to join as a junior or active member. The house is located at 17 E. 5th Street. Those interested can also call the firehouse at 732-961-3997.