The emergency call came in around 7:30 as Ellen Yarborough was in her Wallingford kitchen getting ready for work Wednesday morning. Something was wrong at Strath Haven Middle School — a report of an odor, smoke, and a fire alarm. Yarborough sprang to action.
The Ivy League-educated single mother rushed to the South Media Fire Co. station house two minutes away and into a garage full of monstrous fire trucks that, just a few days earlier, she’d finally been cleared to drive after becoming a volunteer firefighter a year earlier. Only one other person was there. A woman who, like Ellen, also had recently followed her teenage son into the firefighting ranks.
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“It’s just us,” Dora Giannakarios Preston told Ellen. “Let’s go.”
Ellen, 49, and Dora, 54, threw on bunker gear, grabbed their helmets, and climbed into Squad 51. Ellen, a teacher with two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, turned on the flashing lights and drove that baby out for the first time in her life. Dora, a Drexel University graduate and mother who runs her own business, worked the siren from the passenger seat.
The 37-year-old captain who had helped train them both, NASA computer guy Marc Huffnagle? He was home getting his 9-month-old daughter, Talia, ready for day care. But he monitored it all as it unfolded — the ladies coming to the rescue in a Philly suburb.
“I texted my wife!” he said. “I was so proud.”
It was a minor call but history in the making for one of Pennsylvania’s many on-the-ropes volunteer fire companies. It appeared to be the first time that two women, exclusively, handled an emergency call out of Wallingford’s century-old, all-volunteer fire company.
“We’re happy that we went out on that call together, the two of us,” Ellen said. The ladies high-fived. “When you’re able to pull up and there’s females in the truck, to be able to say to the guys, ‘We got this.’ "
It’s an exhilarating anecdote, and one I giddily took in as the three of them recounted it. But it’s too bad the milestone came amid a sobering reality about just who is — and isn’t — keeping our communities safe in these work-crazed times.
These women are filling in where few others are anymore. Statewide, there is a dire staffing crisis at the volunteer companies that for decades have spared their fellow neighbors hefty tax bills. Volunteers have vanished, and no one knows who will protect these towns.
My colleague Michaelle Bond reported recently that communities save a total of nearly $47 billion a year by relying on volunteers. And yet, because people have far less time than ever to volunteer, no one quite knows how to fix the shortage — short of hiring paid crews.
These women are eager to recruit, if only on this message: The experience can be downright amazing.
“I’m going through a divorce now, and this thing has been frigging empowering,” Dora said with fist pumps while her markedly subdued partner that morning, Ellen, watched with a studied calm. "There’s nothing I can’t do now.”
Dora was sitting in the fire station a few years back with her son as he filled out an application, when she got roped in. Marc, the captain, asked if she’d want to join, too. He asks everyone this. All the time and anywhere.
Not only did Dora go for it, she eventually found herself working a car fire with her boy, Harrison James Preston.
“He’s got the hose, and I’m backing him,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Ellen and Dora are among about 14 active volunteer firefighters in a station that used to have at least 28 back when mostly blue-collar men ran fire companies with their sons and grandsons.
In the 1970s, about 300,000 people volunteered as firefighters in Pennsylvania. Today? Fewer than 38,000, according to a report late last year out of Harrisburg.
Ellen became a firefighter after a young man she knew was nearly killed in a fire. It inspired one of her two children, son Cameron, to join the company at age 14. She hung out with him there. And one day, the chief asked if she’d like to hop along on a call.
“Yeah,” said the Strath Haven High School teacher.
“Then join first,” the chief said.
Last April, Ellen completed 188 hours of training and became a firefighter. She is now so devoted to the mission she can’t fathom doing anything but trying to keep it healthy.
“This is real,” she said.
As head of the gifted program at the high school, Ellen is designing and piloting a program enabling students there to earn non-school-hours academic credit in return for working at a volunteer fire company. She tested the idea this year with seniors and hopes to expand it to 10th graders.