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After 220 Years, Stalwart Hook & Ladder Still Vigilant, Still Looking for Volunteers

Matthew Hersh

This is the first in a series on the need for volunteers in the Princeton Fire Department.

With the rain pouring down outside, it’s not what one would consider a “high risk” day for fires, but here’s Rob Toole, all by himself, tending to one of the company engines, at Princeton Hook & Ladder’s Harrison Street station as he takes some time out from his day job to volunteer at the company to which he’s given more than 20 years of “free time.”

Of course, Mr. Toole’s day job is not always in the daylight — he’s a veteran patrol sergeant for the Princeton Township Police Department, but right now, he’s more focused on his volunteer duty as president of Hook & Ladder, which is celebrating its 220th anniversary in 2008.

The Princeton Fire Department, one of the remaining all-volunteer departments in the area, is always on the hunt for a new volunteer base. There are many volunteer fire companies that are supplemented by paid crews, but in Princeton, it is 100 percent volunteer. “We want to maintain that level of service and maintain tradition without costing the taxpayers money.

“We have always been volunteer based, and it’s important to preserve that for us and all of the companies,” Mr. Toole said.

Consisting of Hook & Ladder, Engine Company No. 1 on Chestnut Street, and Mercer Engine Company No. 3, the department is composed of devoted crew members. There is a friendly competition between the three units that is sometimes construed as tense, but the fact is, Mr. Toole said, that with the three companies striving to provide premium service at a premium price, minor frustrations occasionally bubble to the surface.

“Here we have the tradition to maintain, and a strong sense of service to community  once you get the fever to do this, you can’t get rid of it. It all comes back to helping your fellow man,” Mr. Toole said.

Even with volunteer levels slipping, the department is never at a loss for assistance. The effort to put out the fire on College Road that destroyed some Princeton University faculty housing in January was bolstered by assistance from nine other area companies. And while that instance was indicative of the strong bond between departments, even crossing municipal boundaries as is often the case, it later came to exemplify some of the strains of an all-volunteer department.

Equipment inspection by municipal inspectors following that event lagged, and while there were no threats to equipment or to resident safety, various officers in the fire department indicated that a sense of equipment neglect is just one of many things that can be a de-motivator.

Princeton Borough serves as the lead agency in overseeing the fire department, and municipal officials have for years acknowledged the lack of robust volunteerism and the strains that result, though there is hesitancy, on the part of the department to provide a paid day crew, even for administrative oversight, the reason being that it’s not part of the historic departmental make up.

“There’s a lot of turnover in the department, more than there used to be,” said Mark Freda, a current officer and former Hook & Ladder chief, “and I think part of it is a lack of knowledge out there that people can join.”

Mr. Freda added that the number of ways to get involved has increased, so volunteerism gets spread out more evenly. “Thirty years ago, there weren’t nearly as many things for the teenagers to do, or for people who wanted to give back to their town. It’s hard to say ‘give us the serious time commitment,’ so it’s certainly part of the problem.”

But the department is still flush with young members, and both Mr. Freda and Mr. Toole were encouraged that with current recruitment initiatives, as well as with new creative thinking, volunteer rates can rise.

“You look back to 1780, when a group of citizens got together to form the Princeton Fire Company, and it evolved over time, and we’re here now as extensions of that effort,” Mr. Toole said.

Hook & Ladder has come a long way since. The current firehouse was built in 1957, and before that, the company was located at Harry’s Army Navy on Witherspoon Street. The locales have changed, but the tradition has remained, said Mr. Toole, whose father, William J. Toole, and grandfather, William M. Toole, were also firefighters. Mr. Toole’s maternal grandfather, Charles Sutphin, was also a firefighter.

One thing that always remains is the “spirited” competition between companies. “It’s just a sibling rivalry, but when the chips are down, you’re going to protect your brother or sister.

“When the alarm goes off, all that bickering goes away.”


For more information or to volunteer within the Princeton Fire Department, visit,, call (609) 497-7646, or stop by any of the fire stations to obtain an application.

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