As the director of emergency services of Upper Moreland Township, Robert Drennen wears many hats – he’s the fire marshal, the chief fire official and the emergency management coordinator.
“It’s a complex system,” Drennen said.
As the fire marshal, Drennen is responsible for finding the cause and origin of all fires throughout the township. He is also responsible for overseeing the career firefighters' inspection program.
“That’s the backbone of fire safety,” Drennen said of the fire inspections that are done every year in the township.
There is a captain and four firefighters under his supervision. They respond to emergencies from 6 a.m. - 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
In addition to the fire marshal, a volunteer fire chief supervises the operations of the township’s 45 volunteer firefighters, who respond to emergencies after 6 p.m. and on the weekends.
The volunteer firefighters represent the Willow Grove Volunteer Fire Company, while the career firefighters make up the Upper Moreland Fire Department.
Drennen described the camaraderie among all of the township’s firefighters as satisfying and enjoyable – one of the main reasons why he initially started his career as a firefighter in 1974.
“I think there’s a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that you are helping people,” he said. “And there’s the added dimension that you are doing it as a team.”
He started a career in firefighting, right out of school
Drennen grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and attended Archbishop Ryan High School.
He graduated from LaSalle University with a degree in liberal arts in May of 1974. Less than three months later, he took the Philadelphia Fire Department exam and became a firefighter.
“My family always had an interest,” Drennen said. “My father had been involved with the reserve fire force in Philadelphia.
Drennen had an illustrious career with the Philadelphia Fire Department, as he was promoted three times: to Lieutenant in 1978, Captain in 1982 and Battalion Chief in 1987.
Before retiring from the PFD in 1998, Drennen earned master’s degrees in public safety management and education, both from St. Joseph’s University.
After retirement, he returned to St. Joseph’s University as the director of the university’s Public Safety Institute.
In this position at St. Joe's, Drennen taught for three graduate programs, along with continuing education and training programs, essentially sharing his professional experience with future emergency responders. He held this position until 2008.
While teaching at the university, Drennen became a volunteer for the Willow Grove Volunteer Fire Company. For five years, he was the company’s fire operations safety officer, a position that supported the incident commander during response calls.
In the same year he left his teaching position at the university, Drennen took on his current job as the director of emergency services for Upper Moreland Township.
Continuing fire education for future firefighters and the public
Drennen's commitment to continuing education is still reflected in his work in Willow Grove: Both career and volunteer firefighters undergo weekly training.
“That’s a big commitment by the volunteers,” Drennen said. “Not only do they have the demands of going to fires and emergencies, but they also have to take the time to train.”
The weekly training takes place in the large conference room of the main Willow Grove Volunteer Firefighters' station, 227 Davisville Road.
On occasion, Drennen presents such training classes, which focus on procedures for specific sites around the township. Various officers of the Fire Company, as well as guest speakers from around the region, also lead the trainings. A recent training lesson explained the hazards of tackling a fire in garden-style apartment buildings.
Guest speakers from around the country also teach other training lessons. Drennen said that one guest speaker explained the procedures for handling bulk storage oil facilities, such as the one near York Road and the Turnpike.
For the volunteers, additional training involves working with career firefighters to familiarize them with vehicles and equipment.
According to Drennen, not only are neighboring and regional townships invited to the training courses, but firefighting and emergency resources are also shared by neighboring first responders when needed.
“That’s the strongest aspect I see in this region,” Drennen said. “There is very strong support between all the communities.”
Drennen also supports public training in fire prevention.
During the first week of October, also known as “National Fire Safety Week,” the bay doors at the main fire station are opened, and the community is treated to fire-safety activities and lessons.
According to Drennen, the lessons focus on making the public aware of the importance of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and creating a house fire escape plan.
He said that career firefighters also make private presentations to local schools and groups.
Priority project: mapping the township
For the last two years, Drennen has set out to create a functional map of all the “high-risk facilities" within the township. He expects to have the entire township mapped out in the next three years.
Whenever he is called to an emergency, Drennen carries a thick binder filled with descriptions of all such facilities (mostly commercial structures), from which he directs procedures for firefighters.
The entry for each facility comes complete with an aerial map, structural floor plans and comprehensive emergency information.
The Willow Grove Volunteer Fire Company is currently accepting new members, anyone interested in joining, or for more information, visit www.tiller10.com.