By Jacki Bardole
During their annual Christmas party, Corning Fire Department (CFD) chief, Donnie Willett, informed the members of the department that he wished to step down from the position after serving 19 years in that role. Subsequently, during the department elections, held the first Monday of each January, Brian Kannas, who has been assistant chief for the past 18 years, was selected to fill the position. Willett will remain in the position of Emergency Management Director as well as continue to serve on the fire department as a volunteer.
Willet has served as a member of the CFD since September 1967. During that time, he has witnessed many changes to the way the department and the fire service in general are run. Not only are there more than double the annual calls to answer, but the way the department is funded and the standard procedures have both undergone major overhaul through the years. Prior to 1972, if the department needed a new fire truck, they would have to fundraise and solicit money from the city council. State law created fire districts, which allowed for fire departments to receive taxation from these fire districts. With the taxation, the budget surplus can be put into a truck replacement fund. “We bought our last fire truck in 2010 for $227,000,” said Willett. “We were able to pay for that in full without going to the city council, the board of supervisors or the township trustees and ask for money.”
During his tenure with the department, the two projects that Willett most proud of are the Jaws of Life and the new fire station projects. In 1979, when the CFD purchased the original Jaws of Life unit, they were the first in this region of the state. The original unit was replaced last year. The new fire station project began in the fall of 2008 as a result of Adams County being declared a disaster relief county that was eligible for FEMA grant funding. Adams County received roughly a third of the projected budget from this grant and began the process of raising the additional money needed. Now, nearly six and a half years later, the department is roughly a month from being able to move into their new facility.
According to Willett, the most difficult and even surprising part of being the chief of the CFD has been the differences between having employees and volunteers under his supervision. “With volunteers, you have to have an open door and listen to all sides of an issue and work towards compromise,” said Willett. “If you want to make changes, you have to sell the change to the members so that they are on board with you; you can’t just change things dictator style.”
But working with volunteers also creates a unique atmosphere that is really rewarding. “We are not an organization that gathers just because—we are family. If one is in trouble or has an issue, the whole department is behind them.”
Willett describes his fellow CFD members as a big group of brothers and sisters. Kannas echoes this sentiment, quickly pointing out that “Our motto is ‘when we work, we work hard; when we play, we play hard.’ There is a lot of good natured teasing and friendly competition among us.”
Kannas, who admits to having been a bit of a “firebug” as a child, has served the CFD for 32 years, though it wasn’t something he ever imagined he would do. “Donnie asked me to join the department, and I thought it would be a good idea to help out and serve my community,” said Kannas. “But once it’s in your blood it’s in your blood.”
Along those lines, the most difficult part of the transition to chief is that instead of being hands on during call outs, Kannas will need to be the man in charge, standing back and leading, not jumping right in to do the work.
Kannas most looks forward to keeping the family aspect of the CFD. During his years of service, Kannas has had the opportunity to serve with not only his brother for ten years, but also his son for seven. Both have since left the department. Having more than one family member serve is atypical in a small, volunteer department, but is something that has occurred in Corning for many years. Leading the bi-monthly training and teaching sessions, reminding the members of the department that safety is always their first priority, is another aspect of the chief position that Kannas eagerly anticipates.
Both Willett and Kannas indicated that to be a volunteer firefighter requires support from both family and employers. Kannas, who is employed at Raymond Moore Implement, said, “my boss is very supportive of the fire department, he knows someone has to do it.” Both men mention that they have missed birthdays, anniversaries and other holidays with their families because of fire calls. The also both recount times that they were reminded that firefighters are not invincible, nor are they immune from experiencing fire in their own homes. Said Kannas, “there was once over a period of a few years, when of the four officers, three of our wives had fires.”