The fire station has been serving the valley since 1890

Story by Chris Kent

Photos by Erin Williams

Brandon Bunch (left), Emery Siegrist, Will Poole, Brian Zeilenga, Jake Dutton, Chris Butters and Sam Kelaher are all volunteer firefighters with Hose Company 4 as well as students at JMU. When they aren’t studying for classes, they spend their free time volunteering at the fire station

Hose Company 4 serves the greater Harrisonburg community. Its headquarters resides on 210 East Rock St. in downtown Harrisonburg. On a given Saturday, its firetruck perches like a shining marble obelisk in the driveway. The pearl white truck basks in the stark sunlight after being hosed down by the group of college-aged, volunteer firefighters surrounding it.

Founded on Oct. 7 1890, Hose Company 4 is one of the oldest fire and rescue departmentsin the Shenandoah Valley. Made up of volunteer firefighters and career staff, the rumor goes that James Madison University exists in Harrisonburg due to the early presence of the fire department. Or at least,that is according to Chris Butters, a lieutenant at Hose Company 4. Butters has been a volunteer firefighter since Fall 2013 but joining threeyears ago was not Butters’ first interaction with the fire department.

Butters’ father, Tim Butters, is a 1979 JMU alumnus and a volunteer firefighter at Harrisonburg Hose Company 1 from 1975 to 1980. “My dad was a fire chief, so when I was a kid I kind of just grew up around it,” Butters says. “I was like ‘I want to do that, I want to do that!’ and finally I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can do that.’”

Butters connection to the fire department was established through his family, but for others it was the sight of a bright red truck driving down the streets that captivated their senses, or their sense of duty. “They planted the seed from a young age. They used to have Santa Claus come into my neighborhood on a fire engine, and it was kind of my first experience with the fire department,” Brandon Bunch, an emergency medical technician and firefighter, says. “It was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to be a career guy after college for a while. I don’t know, I’ve just always liked helping out the community.”

While some joined because of family or a sense of duty, new member at William Poole joined because it “seemed like fun.” Poole is going through the classes necessary for his Firefighter 1 certification, which will allow him to enter burning buildings.

The local training grounds for firefighters is a small facility off South Main Street. The site, bordering Blacks Run, holds the skeleton of a five story building that models the bare essentials of a high-rise building. Here, firefighters can practice numerous drills with their main engine, such as clearing apartments, moving up through floors and hose work.

Butters, as lieutenant and driver of the truck, handles the mechanisms of the pumps. Butters gives orders over a walkie-talkie and ensures that the firefighters know what they’re doing. The hulking pump engine emits a roar like thunder. The ground tremors as thousands of gallons of water pulse out of the hydrant, into the firetruck and up to the Kevlar hose four stories above. Operating the dials and levers of the pump, Butters says, requires constant calculations of friction loss, gallons per minute and the pressure of water leaving the nozzle.

Butters describes pumping in the terms of electricity, when you have to pay attention to how much current is flowing the circuit and how strong the voltage is. Operating the nozzle, he is more concerned about how much water is flowing through the system than the pressure leaving the nozzle.

Atop the four-story building, Sam Kelaher, a firefighter at Hose Company 4, shoulders up to Poole as the serpentine hose blasts water at 124 pounds per square inch of pressure out its nozzle. Kelaher says holding one of the hoses blasting water by yourself is like walking through the gale winds of a hurricane. This is especially worrisome when the firefighters are clearing floors in a cramped apartment building.

“You see the glorified versions on TV but it is like surprisingly difficult to move,” Kehaler says. “Once you get over the two and half inch diameter, you basically need something that is on a stand to keep it from not moving around.” Though they are only going through training exercises, the crew acts out the motions as if they’re on an actual call. They soldier around wearing 50 pounds of safety gear, insulating them from the searing heat of a structure fire and keeping them from suffocating. “It’s difficult to drag a hose through a building and search for people at the same time, when you can’t see anything. ‘Cause usually when you are in a smoky environment, you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face,” Kehaler says.

Yet the firefighters need more than gear to protect themselves in a fire — they need each other. Butters said there is a common joke that firefighters are the largest fraternity because they always have each other’s backs. Bunch knows the guys in Hose Company 4 are his brothers and will always be there to help him. “You’re living with these guys, you spend the night with them,” Bunch said. “You’re sleeping in the bed next to them, waking up in the middle of the night. Like I said, it’s blood, sweat and tears.”