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John Waterhouse’s fellow volunteers with the Chester Hose Company say it’s impossible to find a more dedicated member of the department. John was recently honored for his 25 years of service to the town. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo )
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There is a difference between challenging and impossible. Nothing illustrates that better than what John Waterhouse, 52, has accomplished in his life. He is an exemplary fireman. He regularly comes to Monday-night training sessions of the Chester Hose Company and participates in the drills; he attends the monthly general membership meeting and the informal dinner beforehand. He has done all that for the last 25 years. The department, in fact, has just honored him at its annual banquet for his years of service.
What makes John’s participation in the fire department even more impressive than his attendance record are the obstacles he faces. John has Down syndrome. On a recent afternoon, his 25-year pin was displayed prominently on his full dress uniform as he talked with a visitor along with Chester Fire Chief Jim Grzybowski and Chester firefighter John Ahearn about what his membership in the department meant to him.
“I like helping,” he explains.
Showing he was up to date on Fire Department rules, John adds that he always kept his uniform in order.
“You get points for keeping it clean,” he explains.
Nancy Tripler, a staffer who has worked with John at Brian House in Chester, the group home where he lives, says John always knows when it is time for a Fire Department meeting.
“He’s very enthusiastic; he’s involved in all their activities,” she says.
According to Tripler, John hands out water bottles to runners at Chester’s Four on the Fourth road race on July 4, and he helps at the grinder booth at the Chester Fair, the chili cook-off at Winter Carnivale, and the pancake breakfast on Mother’s Day.
“It’s hard to tie him down,” Tripler notes.
Grzybowski points out that firefighting is a tradition in John’s family.
“John has it in his blood, from his father and his brother,” he says. “He has the dedication, the passion, the innocence, and joy of helping people. I wish I had 20 more like him.”
Ahearn, who works with John on Fire Department procedures, usually calls him on Sunday night before each Monday meeting to talk over what the upcoming drills will be.
“He’s one of the best. We have a close bond; we’re both devoted to the fire service,” says Ahearn, who picks John up to drive him to department meetings.
At a recent evening session, as the department practiced ice rescues, John acted as the victim. A board of pictures displayed at the banquet showed John at work, among other things packing down the hoses after they were used.
“He knows how to do things correctly, things like running a hose line,” Grzybowski says. “It might take him longer, but he knows what to do.”
John also loves the Fire Department radio, and Grzybowski recalls that at least once John climbed up on the fire truck, took the radio, and announced, “Stand by for orders.”
John doesn’t regularly respond to fire calls, but Grzybowski says that if he is at the station when a call comes in, he goes with other firefighters to the scene. At fires, John cannot enter a burning building, but can provide assistance like bringing bottled water and getting tools or equipment for people. He always wears a bright red slicker so that other firefighters will know where he is.
The fire company answered some 700 calls last year, of which more than 500 involved medical situations, including automobile accidents.
At the annual banquet this year, the department gave John a red hat to go with his outfit. The helmet is actually the first one that Ahearn’s brother, Michael, used as a firefighter in Killingworth. Ahearn’s father, Brian, gave John a watch he had used when he was chief of the fire department in Killingworth. All the Ahearns, who have since moved to Chester, are now members of the Chester Hose Company.
Grzybowski, who joined the Chester department the same year that John did, said that John had showed other fireman by example what people with challenges like his are capable of. Mainstreaming in school of students with disabilities, he notes, has made the general population more familiar with what people can achieve, despite the obstacles.
“Now with education people know about this. Everyone took to him right away,” Grzybowski says.
In fact, John was one of 10 firefighters who not long ago went to a hockey game together.
“I like being with the guys,” John says, his face breaking into a smile.
During the day, John works at an adult facility sponsored by Brian House, where, ironically, he makes burlap starters that are used to ignite fires—in fireplaces.
For more information on the Chester Hose Company, visit chesterhosecompany.webs.com.
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