Bala Cynwyd resident Jim Hornung joined the Union Fire Association in 1979 and became its chief in 1997.
Both of those dates indicate a pretty impressive tenure in a volunteer fire company—for almost anyone but a Hornung, as the chief readily admits. His father and grandfather were each chief of the company for 30 and 50 years respectively.
To steer the ship that long, "I don't think I've got the strength," the professional electrician said with a laugh.
He has, however, seen the fire company through years of change. More prevalent smoke detectors have cut down on small fires, though the big fires never seem to go away, Hornung said. And with training requirements more onerous than ever, recruiting new blood is as tricky as ever.
Hornung himself joined up as a senior at Lower Merion High School, following his relatives. The best part of being in the company, he said, "is hanging out with the guys."
About 35 men volunteer for the company these days, and even when they're not fighting fires—about 80 percent of Union Fire Association's calls are one-company calls, Hornung said—they're training 40 nights a year for about four hours at a time. He added that it's tough to keep the ranks full when affordable housing is scarce in Lower Merion.
A new endeavor is the company's collaboration with Penn Wynne Fire Co. on a high-angle rescue team, which could use equipment to make awkward rescues along the revamped Cynwyd Heritage Trail, Hornung said.
Several fires stick out in Hornung's mind. His first year as chief saw an unusual number of fires, and one killed a resident. Two days before Christmas 2010, a fire severely damaged a home on Winding Way in Merion Station. But the most personal danger Hornung recalls for himself was on Hampton Terrace in the early 1990s.
While Hornung wielded a hose from a stairwell to back up a crew fighting a basement fire, the flames "flashed over," he said.
"It was kind of sketchy, but you just lay low and let it do what it's going to do," Hornung said. "I try not to harp on (the memory) too long."
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Jim Hornung's first name.