When Hopewell residents are faced with a calamity, John Novak, Sr. is often rushing to provide assistance.
For a full 50 years, Novak has been responding to calls where he fought fires, extracted victims from motor vehicles after accidents, and rendered crucial medical assistance as a volunteer for the Hopewell Fire Department.
“Someone told me that something was wrong with the picture of being a firefighter, everyone else is running out and we’re running in,” Novak said.
Dec. 20, 2016 marked Novak’s 50th anniversary of service, and he has no plans to stop anytime soon. Novak will be honored for his 50 years of service at the fire department banquet Feb. 18 at the Princeton Elks Club in Blawenburg.
Novak has doused flames, pulled people out of burning buildings and car wrecks, saved lives with CPR, and led the department as chief in the 1980s and early 1990s. He’s responded to about 6,000 emergency calls and counting.
There is only one other known Hopewell Fire Department volunteer who reached this milestone: the late Mahlon “Murph” W. Riley, who was chief in the late 1950’s.
Novak has resided in Hopewell his entire life. His parents, Fred and Dorothy Novak, moved to Hopewell in the 1940s from New York, and also volunteered for the Hopewell Fire Department. Novak says fire and rescue just runs in the blood sometimes.
“My parents were involved in it. When I turned 16, I couldn’t wait to become a junior firefighter. It’s a family thing. I followed in my father’s footsteps,” Novak said.
In 1970, Novak enlisted in the Army and served the U.S. in Vietnam. After returning home, Novak began a career in carpentry, and attended the newly established fire school in Mercer County to enhance his fire and rescue skills. Novak said that despite his experience, the fire school provided a valuable education.
Novak has held many titles in the fire station and first aid squad throughout the years, including chief. Fire and rescue is a shared passion in the Novak home. Novak’s wife, Rose, has also volunteered in several capacities at the station.
“When she married me, she figured she might as well join me at the department,” Novak said.
The Novak sons also joined the family tradition as third generation firefighters. John Jr. is chief engineer at Flagtown Fire and Rescue in Hillsborough, and Joe is now chief of the Hopewell Fire Department.
“Hopefully my grandkids will do the same. Most people who join have a family member or close friend in the department,” John Novak, Sr. said.
Joe Novak said Hopewell Fire Department is responsible for answering calls in Hopewell Borough and one third of the township, but the department provides mutual aid in nearby areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania as needed. Seventy percent of the district is without hydrants. The department carries 4,000 gallons of water in tankers to fight fires. Hopewell Fire Department’s expertise in using tankers has been called upon in other communities.
“We drove a tanker up to the North Brunswick warehouse fire in 2014 and were instrumental in getting the water supply set up there,” Joe Novak said.
Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters has been declining in recent years, and Joe Novak says the average length of time a person volunteers with a department is about seven years.
“Both members of the household usually work. A lot of people can’t leave work to come to town. The township supplements us with one paid person on weekdays. We’re fortunate to have a few people in the town who can come during the day. We’re 100 percent volunteer on nights, weekends, and holidays. We’ve left a couple holiday dinners,” Joe Novak said.
‘I’m the oldest one fighting fire now. They call me Dad.’
Joe also said people are drawn to volunteering at the department because their friends or family are volunteers, and they become drawn in after attending the social events established for the department and their families.
“We have 75 volunteers who do various things throughout the department. We have social functions with members to enforce camaraderie and the family atmosphere. A lot have gone onto to make it a career. We’ve had people go on to become paid firefighters in Philadelphia and South Carolina. We go through the same training as a paid fireman does,” said Joe Novak.
Those interested in considering a career as a volunteer can go online to protecthopewellvalley.com for information.
In 50 years, John Novak Sr. has witnessed both the evolution of firefighting and Hopewell Valley. As the community has grown, the types of construction and traffic patterns have changed.
“When I first started, if we got 100 calls a year, it was a busy. Now we average about 300 calls per year. Fire alarms, smoke detectors, ceiling alarms, public education, adoption of the fire codes, and the standards for businesses and homes has definitely changed,” John Novak, Sr. said.
Home construction trends and in-home technologies have also changed in respective positive and negative ways over the years. According to Joe Novak, alarms send an alert directly to the station, and while sometimes these are false alarms, these systems have successfully saved homes and pets in the area when fires were reported while the occupants of the house were not home.
“The way they are building houses is actually worse. Open floor plans and lighter weight construction helps fire spread,” John Novak Sr. said.
New technology has improved fire and rescue in just the past 15 years, and according to John Novak Sr., firefighters are continually receiving training to stay current on best practices and the use of new technology.
“Our equipment has compressed air foam. It helps the effectiveness of it so we don’t have to use as much water. Rather than hitting the fire and splashing off, it goes through it and disrupts thermal balance, putting the fire out in half the time,” Joe Novak said.
The department began using compressed air foam in 2006, which was 40 years after John Novak Sr. joined the department.
“Thermal imaging cameras allow us to see through the smoke and areas hidden behind walls. Smoke coming through roof can in reality be in the basement, which could compromise the floor you’re standing on,” Joe Novak said.
While most technology has completely changed over the past fifty years, John Novak Sr. has witnessed the resurgence of a nozzle that had gone out of fashion.
“When I first started, we switched from using a smooth bore nozzle to fog and automatic nozzles. Now, because of the effectiveness of the smooth bore, we’re going back to what was used 50 years ago,” John Novak Sr. said.
John Novak Sr. said that he has no plans of retiring from the department anytime soon.
“I get treated so well down there. Guys really look up to me. Makes me feel good. Joe was moving up in the ranks. Now he is the chief, and I am so proud of him. I don’t know what I would do without it. I’m the oldest one fighting fire now. They call me Dad,” John Novak, Sr. said.