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Volunteer firefighters, Adams risk their lives often

BURLINGTON - In 1980, Joe Adams joined the Burlington-Fayette Township Volunteer Fire Department because he wanted something to do.

"It looked like fun, and it was something to do," he said. "Now, my focus has changed to something more community based - helping people in need."

"It's just something I like and enjoy. I never really gave it a thought as to why."

This January, Adams was chosen as chief, an experience he said was overwhelming.

Since then, Adams has worked with schools, businesses, residents and nursing homes on fire prevention, which makes the firefighters' jobs easier, he said.

On more than one occasion, Adams' life has been at risk for his volunteer work. While fighting a house fire in 1983 where people were trapped inside, he drove in the tanker.

Something went wrong with the pump and it exploded. Adams had second- and third-degree burns on seven percent of his body and spent seven days in the hospital.

"That was one of the scariest times, one of the most dangerous. But sometimes, you deal with collapsing houses. They're all dangerous," he said.

During Adams' long firefighting career, the job has changed significantly. Training is now far more complex, with firefighters not only learning different techniques to put out fires, but also having to focus on homeland security issues.

"Twenty-two years ago, training was, 'Here's a fire hose; here's a nozzle. This is how you put it out,’&uot; he said.

Now, with improving technology and gear, training can be far more complex. Firefighters are sometimes closer to fires, they are trained more on how the organization runs, specialized rescue techniques such as confined space rescues and vehicle extrications.

"And anything else the public can figure out that we need to do," he said. "When you're talking about John Q. Public, the first call they generally make is to the fire department. You have to move with times as the times move."

"As a general statement, I just want to let people know that when the fire department arrives, for whatever reason, we have a job to do. We're not trying to be mean. We just want to keep everyone safe. There have been instances where we've been threatened because people are upset. We're just there to make things as safe as possible."

Times changing in Burlington itself have significantly changed the operations of the department. Since stores such as Wal-Mart moved in and brought more traffic, the department now responds to more accidents than fires, Adams said.

Nevertheless, Adams still keeps going.

"You get a sense of pride stopping something that, to the general public, was unstoppable," he said. "You can help someone protect the belongings they've worked hard for, for 20 to 30 years, that a fire is trying to destroy."

To get the job done, teamwork between the department's approximately 30 active duty members, as well as their sister department, Fayette Township No. 2, and other departments is key.

Adams and his wife Jamie have been married since 1986, and the couple has two sons, Michael, 19, and Corey, 15. His sons haven't expressed much concern about what he does, but for Jamie, his work is a big concern, he said.

"She's kind of glad that I've moved up in the ranks," he said. "I'm still in danger, but my position does not allow too much of that."

The reason why he has never become a professional firefighter is because he always seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.

"I was on Huntington's list, but my age caught up with me," Adams said. "Thirty-six is the cutoff point because of insurance and retirement."

Adams does not know exactly how long he will keep going, but he has made an estimate.

"I figure if I can last 30 years, I'll be done with it," he said.