Hobbies tend to bring out passion within people. However, when talking about one of the most dangerous hobbies out there, Fire Chief Lee Perlmutter cannot hide his burning passion for firefighting.
“Firefighting is the only hobby where you could lose your life or save someone else’s life,” Perlmutter said. “Imagine jumping into [a] building with 200 to 400 degree heat, and, on top of that, imagine doing it for free.”
Every member of the Willow Grove Fire Company volunteers his or her time and energy to keep neighborhoods safe 365 days a year and Perlmutter is no exception. He has been perfecting his hobby for the past 40 years and, in November, the Willow Grove Volunteer Fire Company will honor its two-time fire chief with a 40-year pin at this year’s annual banquet.
Perlmutter is a 40-year life member with 32 years at chief rank. He attributes his long career to the firehouse’s atmosphere of family and brotherhood.
“We are a family,” Perlmutter said. “At times, we squabble with each other, but like any other family, we have both good and bad times. However, if we go through a bad time, this place pulls together like no one can imagine.”
Passion for fire services runs through Perlmutter’s own family.
Perlmutter’s son, Michael, was a Prince George Co. volunteer firefighter when he lived in Maryland, and his daughter, Allie, belongs to the Fire Company Auxiliary. Perlmutter even met his wife, Kathy, through mutual friends in the fire services. He emphasized that the friendships he has made throughout the years cannot be replaced.
“If I were to leave today, we would still be friends,” Perlmutter said. “They are there 100 percent of the time, and they’re honest with you.”
This family extends well past the Willow Grove region. For instance, Perlmutter recalls George Crotts, who died in the line of duty.
“When George had his firemen’s funeral, I remember every fire company from Bucks and Montgomery counties came out to support us,” he said. “This is truly a family and brotherhood.”
Perlmutter’s firefighting career began in 1971. He reached the rank of officer by 1979 and became fire chief in 1989 for five years. In 2003, he took over as fire chief for the second time.
Perlmutter cited his uncle, Benjamin Matusow, as one of the primary reasons he became interested in fire services.
“My uncle was in auxiliary police in Cheltenham,” he said. “When I was growing up in Wyncote, I thought that was a cool thing as a youngster.”
While driving through Willow Grove in the summer of 1969, his uncle’s influence finally caught up to the 17-year-old Perlmutter.
“I saw Second Alarmers pumping gas,” he said. “The gas station’s owner would say to the Second Alarmers if they take over the station for the weekend, he would donate the profits to them as a fundraiser. I saw them and instantly became interested in meeting them.”
Ultimately, Perlmutter joined the Second Alarmers. In the early 1970s, the fire company was connected to the . As a result, Perlmutter started hanging out with the fire company and made the switch when he turned 18.
“Basically, I liked and chose the big red trucks over the little white ambulances,” Perlmutter said.
However, the choice to join firefighting has had some drawbacks. For instance, Perlmutter broke his back in 1972 during fire company drills.
“What does not kill you makes you stronger,” Perlmutter said. “What I learn from that incident is that it made me adapt and learn to rely on others.”
Perlmutter said these lessons have helped him in decision-making as fire chief. For example, he puts a priority on listening to what others are saying.
“My job is to be open minded to change and, if I don’t agree with everything, I need to investigate and accept the best options,” he said. “Listen to younger ones. They have ideas. Their thoughts do matter. Also, I think staying current, taking drills and staying active is part of the job. You can’t get stale. We have a tough job, and it helps to do things with a sense of humor.”
As a command officer, Perlmutter emphasized that the fire chief’s primary job is to control the scene and make sure safety is a priority.
“We have a motto here: everybody goes home,” Perlmutter said. “This is the goal, the mission, and the passion I have for the job. Safety of the citizens and the fire company is my number one job.”
He attributes much of his leadership style to Robert Ackers, whose picture still hangs in Perlmutter’s office. The fire company called Robert Ackers “Pa” because, as Perlmutter fondly remembers, Ackers was a mentor, guide, and father figure.
“Pa was a great man, and his wife Ruth [Ma] is still involved,” Perlmutter said. “I do look up at the picture when I’m perplexed or frustrated because he had a way of striking compromise with people.”
What Perlmutter learned from Pa was that firefighters operate to a higher calling.
“If a firefighter is only doing this for himself or herself, this isn’t going to work out,” he said. “The mission is more important than any individual and, when we decided to take this on, we work hard to train, mentor and learn everything to accomplish that mission.”
Perlmutter said that extensive training has led to more successful missions. However, this training also has made it harder to recruit volunteers.
“Decline in volunteers is nationwide, and the problem is the economy,” Perlmutter said. “Every family needs two incomes to survive, and that impacts free time to give. Also, we demand a lot of training, and it could take up to a year to train if a volunteer only does nights and weekends. Unfortunately, volunteer firefighting requires a longer commitment than most people can afford.”
He said many volunteers take a class five days a week for a month. To join the Willow Grove Fire Company, volunteers need to become certified Firefighter 1 with training in Hazmet, first aid, CPR and AED.
“We’re a paramilitary [organization] and have to have disciplined people who work within the system because this one hobby can take your life or someone else’s life,” Perlmutter said.
As fire chief, Perlmutter started the Montgomery County Incident Support Assistance Team (ISAT) with Tom Sullivan, Montgomery County director of Public Safety.
“This team consists of highly qualified fire officers, fire marshalls, and Emergency Management [Officials],” he said. “Basically, we train our members in planning, assisting incident commanders, assisting with the press. Everybody gets trained in everything so anybody could step at any time.”
Each member of the team has at least 10 to 15 years of service and five years at chief rank.
Perlmutter said the fire companies in Montgomery County get along well based partly on the common need of manpower.
“We run a box system, which is [a] sensible and safe way to allot resources to ensure the closest company responds to the call,” Perlmutter said. “Safety and health of citizens have to come first.”
He referenced the .
“Although the fire resides in Hatboro geographically, we and Warminster had the closest fire truck to that location,” he said. “We’re smart enough to know the closest people make the difference.”
In the end, Perlmutter knows the fire chief is responsible for every mission’s outcome.
“If the company did a great job, then ‘we’ did a great job,” Perlmutter said. “However, if we did a crappy job, it’s my fault. That’s leadership.”