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Pa. FD honors 4 firefighters with over 200 combined years of firefighting experience

At 65, West Mead Firefighter Dale Johnston is the youngest member of the 50-year and active club

By Keith Gushard
The Meadville Tribune

WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP, Pa. — They have more than 200 years of combined firefighting experience as active members of West Mead 1 Volunteer Fire Department — and the experience continues to accumulate.

Dale Johnston now is the fourth member of the department’s informal “50-year and active member” club, joining Ron Williams and brothers Alan Porter and Barry Porter.

Johnston was honored for his 50 years of active service this past week at the department’s 2024 installation of officers banquet.

But at just age 65, he is the group’s youngest member.

Williams, 85, remains an active firefighter with 58 years of service, while Alan Porter, 71, has 53 years of service and Barry Porter, 67, has 51 years.

Over the years, Johnston and the Porter brothers all have served terms as the department’s chief, while Williams has been an assistant chief.

In addition to being active firefighters, Barry Porter also is the department’s current treasurer while Alan Porter and Johnston serve as two of its trustees.

“He’s still driving fire trucks,” Alan Porter said of Williams.

The Porter brothers and Johnston each joined the department while in their teens as junior firemen and Williams joined in his late 20s.

The Porters’ father, Charles, joined the department in 1958 and eventually became its chief. Johnston’s uncle, Herm Battles, was a chief of the department from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and a founder of the Crawford/Venango Fire School which provides training each September.

Terry Shaulis, West Mead 1 VFD’s current chief, said the willingness of the four to remain active with the department is invaluable.

“The wealth of knowledge they bring and teaching the younger guys is the only way this fire department is going to keep going,” Shaulis said. “We’re blessed to have these guys.”

Equipment and training has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, according the four.

“When I joined we had rubber raincoats, hip boots and plastic helmets and we rode on the back of the trucks,” Williams said. “We actually built two tankers out of gasoline tanker trucks — one held 600 gallons (of water) and the other 1,000 gallons.”

The Porters and Johnston joined the department as they knew each other growing up.

“It was social,” Johnston said of joining. “Barry and Alan, my brother and I, we hung out together as kids.”

“We’re just a big family,” Barry Porter said. “We had family events together and cookouts. Some of the guys were like our father. Our kids knew each other as they grew up.”

Mandated training is the biggest change, though.

When they joined, they took a 16-hour basic firefighting course taught locally to become a firefighter. Now, training is mandated by the state with a minimum of more than 160 hours required.

“It dampens the enthusiasm a bit,” Johnston said of volunteering.

“There were departments that never trained and were a risk to everybody,” Barry Porter said. “We’ve training religiously every Tuesday night since the early ‘60s. It was unacceptable to miss training. We would do off-hours training for those on the second shift.”

“It’s a demand for time,” Alan Porter said. “We have a good group (of active firefighters) who turn out. We had a call last week and we ended up with 20 people there. We are really blessed with good people, good training and good leadership.”

Unlike many fire departments, West Mead 1 doesn’t have a social club with a bar to help with its fundraising.

“We rely on the generosity of our citizens and businesses for support,” Porter continued.

The amount of emergency calls has jumped over the decades as well.

Johnston notes it was about 30 to 40 calls per year when he joined back in the early 1970s. Now the department gets called out 30 to 40 times a month.

“The demand for what the department does has grown,” he said. “We’re now doing trees down, lift assists and medical calls. We’ve got an aging population with medical issues, but there’s no system in place to meet the needs.”

What keeps them going is pride in the department’s rich history of service to the community.

“The people before you put so much pride and sweat equity, it’s almost like an obligation,” Barry Porter said.

“You want to leave this better than when we got it,” Johnston said. “It’s our responsibility for the next generation.”

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