There to answer the call

Larry Colacicco can’t imagine life without the sound of emergency dispatchers calling for help.

After all, he’s spent most of his life answering those calls.

In the early 70s, he began his career as a Cherry Hill firefighter.

Throughout his 25 years with the department, he has also served as fire captain, fire marshal, inspector and public information officer, just to name a few.

But these days, he answers a different type of call.

Yes, the calls come through the same radios and scanners, sometimes in the middle of the night. But the reason he and his crew of volunteers respond to emergency situations is a bit different than you might expect.

Colacicco, along with 38 volunteer members of the Deer Park Rehab Station, routinely respond to fires in Cherry Hill and throughout Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Atlantic counties.

But the members of Deer Park don’t show up in a heavy rescue vehicle with fire hoses.

Instead, they show up to the scene of a fire armed with food, snacks, beverages, fans, blankets, socks, towels, generators, chairs with water reservoirs to cool down one’s body, and a 216 square-foot tent with heat and air conditioning.

Looking back

To accommodate Cherry Hill’s growing population, the Deer Park Fire Company opened the Deer Park Fire Company Substation at Cropwell and Rabbit Run roads in 1968.

In 1994, Cherry Hill’s seven fire districts were merged into one. By 1996, the station became inactive due to a loss of volunteer firefighters.

But 38 members still remained at the station.

And from there, the idea for a rehab unit was born. A few Cherry Hill residents, who had served in different capacities with the police and fire departments, wanted to give back.

Members of the current rehab unit had pitched the idea around and decided to look further into the potential for using the Cropwell Road facility for the volunteer unit.

The Cherry Hill Fire Department accepted the plan and, in 2003, Deer Park received a manpower and supply carrying van.

Soon after, the unit received its second apparatus, Rehab 1385, which looks like a fire truck from the outside, but includes two refrigerators, a stove, microwave, coffee and hot water makers, a hot dog grill, drink dispensers and even a much-appreciated restroom.

How they got here

I had the luxury of spending two hours outside of the office on a rainy Wednesday morning recently to visit this unique fire operation.

As I walked into the station on Cropwell Road, it was evident to me that there was a fair amount of history to be gleaned from this memorabilia-covered building.

Dozens of old photographs, patches and awards lined the walls of the meeting room where I first encountered Station Chief Colacicco and six other volunteers, who appeared to be a pretty convincing family unit.

“We don’t talk about religion, and we don’t talk about politics,” Bill Scheufele joked.

During our time together, the group affectionately thanked Joanne Esposito, who apparently brings soup and other assorted home-cooked meals to the group on a regular basis.

I’m not sure if the guys were thanking her, or poking good-natured fun at her, but either way, they all enjoy spending time at the station, their home away from home, many said.

Many of the volunteers have previous fire, police and military experience and were looking for a way to continue serving their community.

George Manley is a retired police officer and also served as an assistant chief at the Woodcrest Fire Company.

Scheufele spent 46 years with the Cherry Hill Fire Department, serving as a firefighter, and later, with the Bureau of Fire Safety. He also worked with Camden County College’s Fire Science Program for 30 years, he said.

Jim Arpino served as the deputy fire marshall and captain at Deer Park.

He also worked with the police department in Gloucester Township.

A few others I met that day had no previous connection to the fire department, but said that wasn’t about to hold them back from contributing.

“I have no fire background, except for blowing out the candles on a birthday cake,” said Jack Walsh, a Cherry Hill resident who previously worked in pharmaceutical sales.

Walsh and Tim Kraft were both drawn to volunteer at Deer Park because of the sign they saw out front asking for volunteer help. Esposito got connected to the rehab unit once she retired after 25 years with a medical transcription service.

Moving forward

Deer Park Rehab Unit responded to its first call on March 15, 2004, at the King of Pizza in Cherry Hill.

Since then, Colacicco said, the volunteers have never missed a call. He said the rehab unit has about 90 percent of Camden County covered.

The unit has 29 active volunteers and averages about five calls a month.

The volunteers have responded to fires, floods, hazardous materials operations and hostage standoffs.

The volunteers do receive some funding through the Cherry Hill Fire Department, but they also raise money on their own to cover costs through mail campaigns and other fund-raising efforts.

Colacicco said a procurement officer also helps to get free hot dogs and water and rolls. Some of the food is donated from local businesses that the volunteers have formed an agreement with.

The volunteers also work in conjunction with EMS units and are medically trained in CPR. Colacicco said the unit, because of its quick response time, has been able to help save a few lives.

Colacicco regularly updates the Cherry Hill fire chief and provides statistics on the calls they’ve responded to.

Colacicco said he is proud of the work the unit has done over the past seven years and is looking forward to the future.

He lives three blocks from the station and shows no sign of slowing down.

“Once it gets in your blood, it stays. I enjoyed going to work every day. It’s my duty to serve and my duty to help,” he said.

The Deer Park Rehab Unit is always looking for volunteers.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit www.deerparkfire.com.