Editor’s note: Front Lines is a monthly feature profiling individuals who, as first responders, help others in a crisis. They may be police officers, firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians or volunteers. Suggestions for Front Lines can be emailed to Patrick Buchnowski at email@example.com
Firefighter Ronald Schellhammer has achieved what few men have.
At age 85, he remains active with the Cover Hill Volunteer Fire Company.
Schellhammer joined the fire company in 1951, when he was just 16 years old. Since then, he has fought house fires and driven the fire truck.
A strong family history and dedication to the community is what drives him to help others in trouble.
“My grandfather helped start the fire company in 1924,” he said in a interview at the Remington Drive fire station.
Schellhammer also joins his father, brother, four uncles, two sons and one daughter who have been members of the fire company.
Like many other fire companies, it is difficult to recruit and retain members. It’s difficult to find firefighters during daylight calls when most people are working, he said.
There are fewer than 38,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania – a fraction of the 300,000 who were serving in the 1970s, state data shows.
“I don’t do much firefighting anymore but I still drive if they need me,” Schellhammer said.
“As long as I can keep moving around, I will come over and do what ever I can to help.”
Schellhammer is a graduate of Johnstown Central Catholic, which is now Bishop McCort Catholic High School, and retired after 20 years with Galliker Dairy Co.
He joined the fire company long before there were Junior firefighters.
“I just jumped right in,” Schellhammer said. “I wasn’t allowed to go on the truck, but I we had a lot of grass fires.
“When we were kids we used to fight the grass fires with a hose, water cans and rakes.”
He credits his wife, Elizabeth, who passed away in 2005, with giving him the freedom to be an active firefighter.
“I was married and had five kids,” Schellhammer said. “I could come and go as I pleased, and my wife never complained a bit. She was a great woman.”
Schellhammer said he even drives the ambulance for the Conemaugh Valley Ambulance Association when needed.
“I run the ambulance and get into situations that aren’t too nice,” he said. “You go to these car wrecks and some are dead or beat up when you get there.
These guys running the ambulance – paramedics, EMTs – they have a tough job.”
Schellhammer’s son, Shaun, an assistant fire chief who has spent 26 years in the fire service, is proud of his dad.
“It’s incredible what he’s done when you think about it,” he said. “There aren’t many people who can go that age and do what he does.”
Shaun Schellhammer said it’s unlikely his dad will retire.
“We’d like him to, but we still need him,” he said.