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These clergymen will cut short their sermons to fight fires in Paoli

“If I heard the siren go off during Mass, and I heard one engine leave, and then a second engine leave, I’d speed things up a bit, cut that sermon short and just get moving."

Pastor Tom McGill (left) and Father Dave Driesch at Paoli Fire Company, where they are both volunteer chaplains and firefighters.
Pastor Tom McGill (left) and Father Dave Driesch at Paoli Fire Company, where they are both volunteer chaplains and firefighters.Read morePaoli Fire Company

Every firefighter knows a call can come at any time.

But the Rev. Dave Driesch and the Rev. Tim McGill serve a God as well as their community — meaning their pagers go off while they’re praying or leading a service. Driesch, a veteran firefighter and Catholic priest who is prior of Daylesford Abbey, is helping newbie firefighter and Southern Baptist minister McGill, pastor of Paoli Community Church, balance both worlds.

“If I heard the siren go off during Mass, and I heard one engine leave, and then a second engine leave, I’d speed things up a bit, cut that sermon short, and just get moving,” said Driesch, describing how he has fine-tuned his personal fire gauge, developed over the last 30 years.

“[McGill] will say, ‘I ran out of something at the church. Was that OK?,’ I tell him, ‘You’ll learn when you can leave and when you can’t leave. Obviously, you don’t leave during a wedding or funeral.’ ”

McGill said he’s getting the hang of it.

“If I’m in the pulpit preaching, I won’t leave,” he said, “but I will stop services [to ask the congregation] to pray.”

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About three years ago, Driesch, 63, and McGill, 65, each independently reached out to the Paoli Fire Company and offered to serve as a company chaplain. But when department leadership saw their resumes — both have commercial driver’s licenses from driving school buses, and Driesch has volunteered as a firefighter with five other fire departments — they saw that the two men had an additional higher calling: atop a rescue ladder.

“We said, ‘We’re not going to let you get off doing chaplain stuff. We’re putting you to work,' ” recalled Paoli Fire Company Chief Andrea Testa. “I couldn’t ask for a better result. They’ve truly fit in here.”

So now Testa got not just two new firefighters but also two chaplains — which has prompted good-natured griping from other nearby fire companies, she said. “They say, ‘How did you get two?’ Some don’t even have one!”

The two jobs aren’t as disparate as they might seem, Driesch said. He’s known at least two other priests who did double duty as volunteer firefighters. He sees nothing unusual in making a quick change from white, Pope Francis-style robes to a firefighter’s uniform when a call comes in.

“Both callings are vocations to serve,” Driesch said.

The Paoli department — which is made up of six full-time firefighters, about 30 part-timers and between 30-35 volunteers — covers a 14-square-mile area that includes Tredyffrin, Easttown and Willistown Townships. Within that patch are with more than 250 commercial properties and about 5,200 households sheltering 25,000 residents.

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Last year, the department received 625 fire calls and 1,300 requests for medical services, said Testa (who is the first female fire chief in Chester County and only the second woman in the state to hold that position). And those numbers are only growing.

“For me, as chief, knowing my guys can talk to [Driesch and McGill] if they’re going through anything — whether it’s something from a scene, or something personal at home — gives me peace of mind,” said Testa. “It’s truly been a blessing.”

McGill, who graduated from the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center in June, said he realized when he met the other Paoli firefighters that he needed to work with them to understand their lives. McGill and his wife, Denise, previously worked for Athletes in Action, providing chaplain services to athletes at Penn State University. Even though McGill couldn’t compete, he understood the physical toll that training can have on an athlete, and the pressures they’re under. Firefighting is similar in many ways — except that one consequence of making a mistake could be death.

“I wanted to be in the trenches,” McGill said. “What it like to be in a hot, smoky room when you can’t see and you’re struggling to breathe? What is it like to be afraid and control your fear?”

While the idea of a fire “chaplain” comes from religious traditions, those who fill the role can be nonsectarian. A chaplain’s job, according to the Federation of Fire Chaplains, is to help and comfort those who seek their guidance

When McGill and Driesch go out on a call, they’re first responders before they’re chaplains. They don’t press their religious beliefs, but they still make it clear that they’re there to serve. If, after a car accident, someone is trapped inside a vehicle, one of the chaplains will lean in and ask if the person follows any specific faith and if they’d like to talk to them or pray. During a house fire, they’ll offer comfort to victims watching their homes’ destruction.

And they both pray, from the start of a call to its finish and beyond.

McGill said the fire academy was so taxing that at a few points he thought he wouldn’t make it to graduation. But an instructor told him, “You’ve made it this far. It’s always too soon to quit.” He now shares that mantra with others.

“That spoke volumes to me, in terms of hanging in there,” he said. “I want to give the people I rub shoulders with” — no matter their struggles — “the same message. That’s life. You can’t just quit.”