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Black Lick VFD marks 75 years

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 3:56 p.m.

BLACK LICK--The Black Lick Volunteer Fire Company is preparing to unveil the second edition of one of its revived traditions, a summertime festival, set for July 20-22 in and around the fire hall along Main Street.

At the same time, the department is marking its 75th anniversary of service to the community.

With 48 active members and four vehicles, the current generation of Black Lick firefighters follows in the footsteps of such earlier volunteers as Charlie Grater, Joe Shrum and Charlie Smith.

In the fire department's early days, members answered alarms with a hand-pulled, hand-pumped wagon that filled a series of water buckets that were passed forward to douse the flames.

When the department obtained its first mechanical truck, a used pumper unit, the fire hall was located in the rear of Charlie Grater's market, located along Park Drive in Black Lick.

In the 1950s, the current fire hall was erected between Main Street and Park Drive, followed by an addition a few years later. Proceeds from bingo games helped to pay for the construction costs of about $30,000, and regular bingo events continue to be held at the hall today.

Major incidents the department responded to in the past included a fire that burned Palmer's store and seven houses, another that destroyed the old Luciusboro company store and another blaze in the Cravotta Building.

While only one charter member of the Black Lick Fire Department survives, Angelo Cravotta, the next most senior member, Jim Joyce, is nearing his 60th anniversary of service with the company.

In the past, Joyce has held the offices of chief, president and secretary. He no longer participates in fighting fires, but he responds to help control traffic at emergency scenes, as a member of the department's fire police, along with the captain of that unit, Monroe Reese.

Joyce has seen the equipment and protective gear for his department's members continually improve through the years.

An old 1938 fire truck that once delivered Black Lick firefighters to emergency scenes required a running start, he recalled. "They pulled the truck down a ramp to get it started."

Through time, later models added to the department's fleet each offered distinct advantages.

According to Joyce, a 1950 Ford tanker truck could transport upwards of 1,000 gallons of water to a fire scene: "It could put out a lot of fire because it held a lot of water."

For a while, the department's designated "first-out truck" was a 1952 Ford pickup truck that was fitted with a 250-gallon water tank.

Joyce explained, "It was faster than the other trucks. The idea was it would be able to hold the fire a little bit until the rest of the trucks got there."

For a while, the Black Lick volunteers relied on a converted four-wheel-drive Dodge Power Wagon, nicknamed "Smoky," when they responded to bring brush fires under control.

In the 1970s, when Joyce was fire chief, the department entered a new era with the purchase of its first diesel-fueled truck, a Ford pumper/tanker.

"Now the standard engine for a fire truck is a diesel," Joyce noted. "Once you get it running and moving, it develops more power, and it won't stall out on you," as a gasoline engine could.

The department continues to update its equipment.

According to First Assistant Chief Mike Sheriff, the company recently purchased a new Hurst tool, popularly known as the "jaws of life." Replacing an outdated model that was more than 20 years old, it is used to help extricate victims entrapped in wrecked vehicles.

Early next year, Black Lick firefighters are hoping to receive delivery of a new mini-rescue vehicle that also will be used when responding to traffic accidents. It will replace an older vehicle in the department's fleet.

The chief's vehicle, a 2003 Chevy Blazer, recently was repainted by students in the refinishing class at the nearby WyoTech automotive school.

While modern firefighters have vastly improved equipment at their disposal, great strides also have been made in the personal gear and the extensive training that provides them protection against the hazards of their calling.

Reflecting on the advances that have been made since he took part in battling blazes, Joyce said, "We had a good company then. But the fire department we have today is much better trained and better equipped."

He recalled answering fire calls in simple rubber coats and boots. Today's firefighters suit up in fire-resistant uniforms before tackling a flaming vehicle or structure.

The Black Lick company is credited with putting into practice a Personal Accountability System that has since been adopted by other departments to enhance the safety of firefighters entering a burning structure.

Formally adopted four years ago, the system involves the use of a clip that fits on the helmet of each firefighter.

The department's designated safety officer collects each volunteer's clip as he enters the structure and returns it as he exits, ensuring that all members are accounted for.

Keeping the department and its members ready to handle modern emergencies takes money.

Currently, the firefighters are selling raffle tickets for a 12-gauge gun and an additional ticket for $1,000 in cash or gasoline.

In addition to its annual fund drive, a major source of funding for the Black Lick department is its revived summer carnival, now in its second year.

Joyce fondly recalls an earlier version of the festival that featured a corn roast. Another highlight was a traditional battle of the barrel that pitted top hose teams from across the state against those from Indiana County, as they attempted to fill barrels suspended in mid-air with water during the timed event.

This year's festival retains the battle of the barrel as one of the main events, set for noon on July 21.

Joyce is glad to see the summertime tradition back in full swing, noting it's more than just an opportunity to support the local fire department: "It's also a chance to get together and have a good time."

Members of the Black Lick Volunteer Fire Co. Summerfest 2007 planning committee include: Chairman Robert Palmer, the company's second assistant chief; Jeff Doak, second lieutenant; Josh Hutcheson; Ron Hill; Doug Wadsworth, first lieutenant; Chris Marsh; Sami Jo Shacreaw; Dan Shacreaw; Bryan Palmer; and Mike Sheriff, first assistant chief.

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