A Son’s Tragic Death Underscores the Importance of Volunteer Firefighters

In honor of Merion Fire Company’s Tom Hayes, the Main Line Chamber Foundation provides $45,000 in scholarships to deserving students.

Bonnie Hays holds a picture of her late son, Tom//Photos by Tessa Marie Images

​The call went out, and Merion Fire Company volunteer Tom Hays responded, just as he had for the past seven years. It was 8:30 on a Thursday night, Dec. 7, 2006. An electrical fire at a Wynnewood restaurant was extensive enough that Hays and others had to knock down a wall to gain access to the source. It was successfully extinguished 90 minutes later. 

That night, Hays, 25, returned to the Narberth apartment he shared with two friends. He told them he wasn’t feeling well, and he headed to bed. He never woke up. 

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Ten years later, Tom and Bonnie Hays are sitting in the living room of the Wynnewood home where they raised Tom and his younger siblings, reminiscing about his short but full life. A framed picture of their son in his dress blues is displayed on an end table. The official cause of his death remains unknown. “We learned that it’s a frequent cause of death for firefighters,” says his father. “They go to a fire, they come back and go to bed, and they just don’t wake up. He passed away on Friday, and he was supposed to start a full-time job at Main Line Health that Monday.” 

That position would’ve allowed Hays to utilize his civil-engineering degree from Temple University. It would’ve also kept him on the Main Line, so he could continue to volunteer as a firefighter. Hays served with Ardmore’s and Narberth’s fire departments; he also drove the fire truck for neighboring Penn Wynne and Gladwyne. “He was a very active fireman,” says Bonnie. “He knew everybody. It’s such a great brotherhood.” 

Of the 27,000 companies registered with the National Fire Department Census, 71 percent of the staffs are unpaid. While career firefighters make up the forces in larger cities, where the demand for service is far higher, a majority of smaller towns rely heavily on volunteers. Merion Fire Company of Ardmore is no exception. “During the day, I have two full-time people working to keep the apparatus in readiness for the volunteers,” says Tom Hayden Jr., who’s been the fire chief for the past 18 years. “Some firehouses on the Main Line are run 100-percent volunteer.” 

Hayden relies on 35 volunteer firefighters to respond to nearly 400 calls annually. “I have volunteers who are leaving their businesses and full-time jobs to respond,” he says. “I also have shift workers who are available at various times. We’ve managed to put a really good group together that responds to calls 24/7, 365 days a year.” 

Wynnewood’s Tom and Bonnie Hays with reminders of their late son, Tom Jr., who died soon after answering a call as a volunteer firefighter.

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Said volunteers are also saving major taxpayer dollars. A fully paid fire department would cost Lower Merion Township a projected $17 million a year, according to Hayden. Currently, the total budget is $2.5 million. “A police car can arrive at your house for a call with one police officer,” says Hayden. “A fire truck always arrives with three or four guys onboard. It’s very labor-intensive to man a fire department 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

In an effort to raise awareness and funds for volunteer firefighters and EMTs, the Main Line Chamber of Commerce instituted the Main Line Chamber Foundation, dedicated primarily to providing scholarships. The program began in 2006 with $6,000. Every year since, that amount has grown. In 2015, the program distributed a record $45,000 in scholarships to 24 firefighters, EMTs and ambulance workers who are part of the 17 companies serving our area. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded more than $500,000 in scholarship money. 

The majority of the funding comes from the Main Line Run/Walk, a 5K race held annually in September. Giant is the presenting sponsor, with various Main Line businesses supporting the cause, as well. 

Every June, the Main Line Chamber Foundation presents scholarships at a special ceremony. “In many cases, the recipients are fresh out of high school and looking to gain some professional experience and get a job so they can continue to volunteer,” says Bernie Dagenais, Main Line Chamber president and CEO. “These are the people who show up on your worst day or the middle of the night.” 

Chief Hayden knows the significance these scholarships can have. “This fund has made the difference between some of these young men and women being able to go to school,” he says. 

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For the past several years, Tom and Bonnie Hays have attended the ceremony, looking on as two young volunteers are each awarded a $5,000 scholarship that the family has privately funded in their son’s memory. “These people are our future,” says Bonnie. “It’s a nice way to pay tribute to our son.”

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!