Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and where there’s fire, Steve Bair won’t be far behind.
That’s been true since Bair was a young boy and chased fire sirens with his friends. Now he’s operating on a professional level as the fire director/chief of department for the Centre Region Council of Governments, where as part of his duties he supervises the Alpha Fire Company.
Bair joined his first fire company when he was 17 years old and continues to be active more than 40 years later.
Below, the chief talks about the high demand for volunteers and some of the most challenging fires he’s ever fought.
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Q: What time does your alarm clock go off in the morning?
A: 6:45 a.m. I’m not really a morning person and it only takes me 12 minutes to drive into the office. I’m much more the night owl.
Q: You have a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. What were your initial career plans growing up?
A: I wanted to be an engineer working on power generation and distribution projects. I especially liked thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Mostly, I wanted to move out of Harrisburg and see what the rest of the world looked like.
Q: What inspired you to get involved with volunteer firefighting?
A: I grew up on a hill in Linglestown, just east of Harrisburg, and as kids we could both hear the fire sirens and easily see the rising smoke, so we chased firetrucks quite often. At 16, I started taking first aid training, and at 17 I had some friends who convinced me to check out the fire company. I liked the work and I was told I did it well, which wasn’t something I heard very often, so I stuck with it.
Q: Why did you decide to begin firefighting full time?
A: (The) industry treated me very well, and I was blessed with circumstances that allowed me to settle on one job. So I walked away from (the) industry and put all of my energy into the fire service. This particular opportunity allowed me to return to Pennsylvania and be closer to my aging parents.
Q: What would your version of a perfect day look like?
A: As much as I love what I do, it often entails someone else’s misfortune. So a perfect day for me would be hiking in warm weather along a trail with a great view or visiting a museum of some sort if the weather is bad. Then follow up with fine dining and a hot soak before bed.
Q: What has been your proudest moment as fire director?
A: Having my sometimes offbeat ideas accepted by the members of the Alpha Fire Company. In the nine years I’ve been here, the company has made significant changes and improvements. It was a solid company prior to my arrival, but it is stronger today. I think people would be surprised with the amount of talent and the dedication these folks possess. There are some really smart people in this company, and none of them are afraid of hard work.
Q: Where and when was the most challenging fire you’ve ever confronted?
A: Two fires stick in my mind. The first was a triple-fatal fire in Linglestown involving high school classmates. Not only was this fire emotionally difficult, but the house was built in such a way that the fire was really stubborn and hard to extinguish.
The second fire was my first real structure fire as a chief officer at the ripe old age of 25. I’d like to have that one over again because I quickly came to the realization that I was not as smart as I thought and I was not as prepared for the role as I should have been. Things worked out but it was messy ... not my proudest day.
Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle confronting local fire companies today?
A: Hands down, the willingness to volunteer. There are so many things competing for people’s time and attention the fire service is really lost in all that noise. Volunteer firefighting is in serious jeopardy; there is a serious shortage of volunteers everywhere.
Q: What was the last book you read?
A: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.
Q: Do you have any advice that you would give to somebody who is considering taking on the mantle of a volunteer firefighter?
A: I invite everyone to give volunteer firefighting a shot, at least check it out. There is no volunteer opportunity like it; the impact you have on people is truly a rewarding experience. Being physically strong is not essential to being a good firefighter or fire police officer. Every fire company in Centre County has opportunities for firefighters and fire police officers.