Longtime Pottstown fire chief Lengel looks back on more than five decades of service

Retired Fire Chief Richard Lengel was honored last week by the Pottstown Borough Council. Pictured from left, Mayor  Sharon Valentine-Thomas, council President Daniel D. Weand, Lengel and Borough Manager Mark D. Flanders.
Retired Fire Chief Richard Lengel was honored last week by the Pottstown Borough Council. Pictured from left, Mayor Sharon Valentine-Thomas, council President Daniel D. Weand, Lengel and Borough Manager Mark D. Flanders. Tom Kelly III — For Digital First Media
Pottstown Borough Council President Daniel D. Weand, left, looks on as retired Fire Chief Richard Lengel addresses the crowd at last week’s Borough Council meeting.
Pottstown Borough Council President Daniel D. Weand, left, looks on as retired Fire Chief Richard Lengel addresses the crowd at last week’s Borough Council meeting. Tom Kelly III — For Digital First Media

POTTSTOWN >> For 58 years, in one way or another, Richard Lengel has been putting out fires in Pottstown.

Last month he finally hung up his helmet and Michael Lessar Jr. has been hired as the new chief, but no one will go so far as to say he is Lengel’s replacement.

As numbers go, Lengel has amassed some pretty impressive statistics.

Now 71, Lengel spent 24.5 years as Pottstown’s fire chief and, for 15 of those years, was also the borough fire marshal. He also logged 27 years with the Lower Pottsgrove Police Department, 14 of those as its chief.

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And that’s in addition to the 14 years he worked as a medic.

But really, it all started officially when he was just 14 years old, in October 1959.

That’s when Lengel started as a junior firefighter at the Goodwill firehouse.

“I’ve been a member for 58 years,” said Lengel, a Penn State graduate and member of the 1963 graduating class at Pottstown High School.

“We had a very strong program back then. Each firehouse had about 20 members, and we had to go through a 12-week training course,” Lengel recalled. “The juniors had their own officers and I was the junior chief for a while.”

After graduating from Penn State, Lengel worked as a draftsman at Stanley Flagg Brass, Birdsboro Steel, Sanders and Thomas engineering, “and then Uncle Sam tapped me on the shoulder.”

Already an experienced firefighter, Lengel served as one for the U.S. Air Force, “including a year I spent in lovely Southeast Asia,” he said drily.

“When I got back I knew I couldn’t go back to sitting behind a desk after being outside all the time, so I started looking around for where I could be a career firefighter,” said Lengel.

But those jobs were few and far between outside of America’s major cities at the time.

It was 1970 and he was working as a dispatcher at Goodwill “to have something to do. I saw an ad in the paper that they looking for a police officer over in (Lower Pottsgrove) township, so I applied and passed the test. I figured I would take that as a temporary job. Then 27 years went by,” he joked.

Throughout that time as a police officer and then chief, Lengel never stopped being a firefighter.

“In fact at one time, I wore all three hats,” Lengel, “I was police chief, chief at Goodwill and I was a medic. It was a busy time.”

Throughout 58 years in the fire service, Lengel has seen more change than he can cite in one sitting.

“Firefighting has become more technical, because the apparatus has become more sophisticated, but it’s also become more dangerous,” said Lengel.

“What we’re using in buildings now makes it dangerous. We’re not just talking about burning wood and cloth anymore. We’re talking about plastics and composites, and they burn hotter and faster and they make the smoke more toxic,” he explained.

Despite those changes, Lengel said one of the things of which he is most proud is the fact that during his tenure as chief, Pottstown never lost a firefighter at the scene, “although we sure had some near-misses.”

And some of those scenes were dramatic to say the least.

Despite 58 years of fighting fires, there were only four photos on the wall of Lengel’s office, photos of what he calls “career fires.”

One was the spectacular July, 2004 fire at the old Doehler-Jarvis building on South Washington Street.

“I don’t use the term heavily involved that often,” Lengel told The Mercury that day. “But this building was exactly that when we arrived — it was burning from top to bottom, front to back and side to side.”

The success story behind that incident was that despite there being seven buildings on that site, “we confined it to one building.”

Another was the 2008 fire at 261 High St. next to Lastick Furniture. In that case, Lengel’s knowledge of the building, a result of his inspections as fire marshal, ensured the fire did not spread to one of Pottstown’s landmark businesses.

“I was at an officer’s seminar at the fire academy when the call came in and as we kept calling more and more alarms, we went to five alarms with that one, more and more officers were leaving the seminar,” he said. “I don’t think anyone was left by the time we were done.”

Those inspections, and his background in police work, also led to something significant — the prevention of a disaster.

After an anonymous complaint about improperly stored chemicals at a former shoe polish factory where chemicals were leaking through floor drains into Manatawny Creek, Lengel went to investigate.

What resulted was an epic six-year legal and bureaucratic battle to get what was then known as the Nittany Warehouse emptied and made safe and the owners to be held accountable.

It is now known as North Hall of the Montgomery County Community College’s west campus here in Pottstown.

But that change didn’t happen overnight.

“I walked in there, looked around at the labels of the chemicals there and I said ‘we’re out of here,’” Lengel recalled. “That place was a veritable bomb sitting in the middle of town.”

At the time, Lengel told The Mercury that if a fire were to flare up there, he would not allow any firefighters inside to fight it, because the chemicals there were too volatile.

“They had a little bit of just about everything in there,” Lengel said.

“That was a case where my police experience really paid off, because I ran that like a criminal investigation, and that’s what it turned out to be,” he said.

It was a good example, he said, of the benefits of preventing a disaster instead of having to handle one.

“Overall, it’s been very rewarding,” said Lengel, who credited those he worked with for making his career a success.

“You’re only as good as the people you work with,” Lengel said, noting that over his time overseeing fire scenes with Pottstown’s four volunteer fire companies, “they work now as more of a single department. Way back in the day, there was not very much coordination.”

But the time has come to step down, he said.

“This is a young man’s job,” said Lengel. “I know its a bit of a cliche, but its true. It’s all about serving the public and everything I have done in this career has been about public service.”