Brotherhood, busting chops, and bragging rights.

Saturday morning was one of those instances where learning was fun--be it yanking one another across the line in tug-of-war, spraying a barrel on an overhead rope to the opposing team's side, or chucking enough water in the bucket brigade challenge to pop the ball out of the barrel. (Holes in the bucket make it that much more challenging).

Take the five Montgomery County fire companies that competed against one another for victory at the 14th Montgomery County Fifth Fire District Water Battle at Towamencin Vol. Fire Co. on Bustard Road.

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Fire Department of Montgomery Township, Towamencin Vol. Fire Co., Colmar Fire Co., Hatfield Fire Co. and North Penn Fire Co. brought their best and braved the heat Saturday morning. 

"It really is a brotherhood," said Al Novack, president of Montgomery County Fifth Fire District. "And yes ... they have a good time, they battle, they win, they pat  each other on the back and share a few laughs. At the end, the big winners get trophies and have some bragging rights."

Towamencin Township Supervisors Chairman Dan Littley said it was a good event for camaraderie and talking technique.

"There's a correlation between training and fun, and doing things you would in a real fire," Littley said.

While turnout was scarce -- there are 13 fire departments in the district -- it still proved a trying time for some firefighters.

Times were trying even for those volunteers who did not appear at the event. Novack said budget constraints and manpower availability had affected turnout this year.

"Attendance has varied from year to year. This year, one fire company was having a wedding, another was having a chicken BBQ, one other was having a major training session at the Montgomery County Fire Academy ... we live in a day and age where you can't count on everybody turning out," Novack said. "A lot work second and third jobs to meet the budgetary needs at home. While we answer to priority calls, when it comes to this, the job comes first."

The water battle, however, was a strict training session, he said. The activities themselves are derived from the training techniques of Benjamin Franklin, who improved the way Philadelphia firefighters did their job in the 18th Century.

"They are put to work in competitive situations, which are all facets of what they learn at the fire academy," Novack said. "It looks like a fun day, and it can be. But on the flip of the coin, everything they learn is being put to use." 

For instance, firefighters were connecting hoses, rolling up hoses, aiming hoses, turning out gear, and working together and communicating in events like tug of war on Saturday.
"There's a lot of competition," said Littley. "In the end, Towamencin lost the tug of war, but (member) Erich Greiner walked over and thanked the other team. There's a lot of sportsmanship, a lot of camaraderie. They know when they pull up to a fire, it's not Towamencin Fire Co. or Fire Department of Montgomery Township; it's firefighters and they are there to put the fire down and help people."
Novack said it was the 14th battle in succession, as there were similar battles prior to the series. Meetings throughout the year are held to organize the event and choose a host fire department. This year, Towamencin Fire Co. stepped forward and, like a few other departments, "contributed immensely" with the building of "outhouses" for the bucket brigade and installing utility poles and wires, for example.
"It would have been a great year for Fairmount Fire Company of Lansdale to host, since they are celebrating their 125th anniversary. Nobody gave it a thought until after the fact," Novack said. "They should have ideally been a host and they could have had a 125th anniversary battle. They had all their people working and couldn't bring a crew."
The Montgomery County Fifth Fire District also includes Montgomery County Fire Police Association, Telford Dive and Rescue Unit, Harleysville Area EMS, Souderton Community Ambulance, Volunteer Medical Service Corps of Lansdale, and North Penn Goodwill Service.
Novack said Montgomery County fire departments need to work together on active volunteer recruitment.
"We have to work as a county in getting together and promoting the volunteer effort," he said. "A lot of people have migrated from urban environments and are accustomed to paid career fire services. They don't give it a thought: when they call 911, the fire company automatically turns out. They are there. They are on the payroll."
Novack said about 97 percent of Montgomery County fire departments are not on a payroll and are not career fire companies.
"Literally, it's the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker that turn out for fires," Novack said.
Luckily, fire departments have been able to raise money through donations and things like bake sales and car washes to purchase fire apparatus and gear. There is also the fire service tax that aids some companies.
"It's like the old days," Novack said.
Littley attributes low volunteer recruitment to a different day and age.
"It's a different age group now, growing up on electronics and not being socially involved like a lot of older folks were as kids," he said. "When we were growing up, we were told to go out and play. Now, you can go up to your room and play games on an iPad and not interact. That's the problem with volunteerism: They don't know their peers also volunteer in communities."