Organized firefighting started in New York in 1648, according to the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), when the first Fire Ordinance was adopted by the Dutch Settlement of New Amsterdam. Numerous sources credit Ben Franklin for organizing the first volunteer fire department, the Union Fire Company, in Philadelphia in 1736. Dubbed the Bucket Brigade, its 30 men used leather buckets filled with water to douse flames.
Today’s firefighters wear protective gear and use sophisticated apparatus to save lives, salvage property, extricate people from cars, perform water and land rescues, and retrieve the occasional feline from its tree perch.
Recently The Hudson Independent spoke with village fire chiefs in Irvington, Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown for an in-depth into these all-volunteer departments — our selfless and dedicated friends, neighbors and family members. No matter the weather, hour or date, they respond with instinctual precision, and provide mutual aid to numerous communities.
Each department has a unique history, and operates under a Chief Engineer, 1st Assistant Chief and 2nd Assistant Chief. In the absence of a Chief, a Deputy Chief or Line Officer will establish command at an incident.
Applicants must be 17 or older, in good physical health, and must pass a physical exam. Some considerations when choosing a company include distance of home/work to the firehouse, specialized tasks/duties of each company, drills and meetings.
This month, the spotlight is on the Sleepy Hollow Fire Department.
Sleepy Hollow Fire Department
Organized in 1876 as the Sleepy Hollow Fire Patrol, the department grew in less than 25 years to five companies — Sleepy Hollow Fire Patrol, Pocantico Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Rescue Hose Engine Company No. 1, Union Hose Engine Company No. 2, and Columbia Hose Engine Company No. 3 — within three fire stations (Beekman Avenue, Lawrence Avenue, and Cortlandt Street), each operating a different piece of fire apparatus.
With a fleet of three engines, one tower ladder, one rescue, two boats, and three chief vehicles, a marine unit and a Junior Corps program (established in 2009), S.H.F.D is the primary fire and rescue agency of the village’s 5.1 square miles — 2.3 square miles of land, and 2.8 square miles of water (Hudson River).
“Our critical times are during the day,” said Deputy Chief Richard Gross, a third-generation firefighter and Sleepy Hollow Department of Public Works general foreman. “When people are at work, we have less people available.”
At any given time, 60 of its 140 members are active personnel, ready to don 80 pounds of gear, including oxygen packs, within two minutes.
Calls are now directed to the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services, Emergency Communications Center (60 Control), instead of to the police department. “When a call comes in, it’s sent to our pagers,” said 2nd Assistant Chief John Korzelius, a second-generation firefighter and Sleepy Hollow Parks Department foreman.
The department averaged less than one call per day the first five months of 2011 (111) and 2012 (112), and reported 302 incidents in 2010 and 316 in 2011, though not all were fires.
“In the winter it could be carbon monoxide calls, or a boiler that backfired, and this winter we had some downtime,” Korzelius said. “We file every alarm electronically with the NYS Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and all calls are monitored via Red Alert™ Emergency Management Software.”
Specialty equipment includes two “Jaws of Life” for vehicle extrication, air bags to raise an object and free trapped victims, stabilization tools, multi-gas detectors, firefighter tracking systems, and thermal imaging cameras to locate people in fires, pinpoint residual heat and save time, resulting in less destruction to property owners.
“We need to act on the spot,” said Fire Captain Chris Scelza, an employee within the village’s finance department. Earlier this year, when the county’s mobile shredder burst into flames across the street from the Beekman Avenue firehouse last year, they acted immediately.
“We heard pounding on the door, and ‘Fire!’ There was a house next door, lots of people around, you just act,” Scelza said. Aggressive action put it out quickly without the fire spreading to the house.
New members must complete the NYS Firefighter 1 course, the same thorough instruction as paid firefighters, during their first year, and are trained in fire suppression, vehicle extrication, surface water rescue, ice rescue, rapid intervention team and any emergency where its response is deemed appropriate. They can then take Firefighter 2 and additional classes.
“Everyone finds a niche,” Korzelius maintained. “We need people in administration, to check equipment, haul hoses, various duties. Not everyone wants to fight fires, and you find out quickly if it’s right for you.”
Marine rescuers undergo specialized training, as do indoor firefighters, whose instincts are kept sharp with frequent exercises like a recent Mask Confidence Course.
“If you put on a blindfold, you’d be able to find your way around your house, and maybe bump into a few things,” Korzelius explained. “Now put on a blindfold and walk through your neighbor’s house. Not so easy, right?”
Wearing completely blackened masks, firefighters make their way through a maze with obstacles. “We put things in their way, catch their clothing so they have to break free as they would in a real-life situation,” he said.
Though their meetings can get heated (no pun intended), firefighters are bonded. “We’re a team and watch out for each other,” Korzelius said.
“We’re a brotherhood,” said Rocky Martello, a 41-year veteran and retired postal supervisor whose daughter, Lt. Angela Martello, is also a firefighter. “If something happens to a fireman, even if we don’t know the person, we go for support.”
Firefighters from Sleepy Hollow and neighboring Tarrytown went to New York City to help following the September 11, 2001, tragedy. “We got a 911 call from the Bronx and spent several months at Ground Zero doing rescue and recovery,” Martello said.
Equipment and training are village-funded; each company pays $1,500 for band attendance at parades, as it did for the Ossining FD’s recent 200th anniversary celebration. The department relies on fundraisers like its much-anticipated dry rub rib days, 50/50 raffles with dinner, and badge and tee shirt sales to help meet operating expenses. “These are ways we bond with the community while raising money,” Gross said.
Since the early 1970s, the department has included female volunteers and today boasts, among others, Martello, and Shelly Florence-Glover, formerly the Ambulance Corps’ Chief of EMS, and firefighter Michael Smutek’s wife and two daughters.
At one point we had six or eight women in the department,” Korzelius said. “People move, new ones join,” like firefighter-in-training Melissa Ray, a sculptor.
Physical health and safety are top priorities. With help from a federal grant, the department bought a $50K gym to ensure firefighters are in good health and physical condition. The grant also paid for mandated physicals and a vehicle exhaust system to protect firefighters from dangerous fumes — saving the village $85,000.
“Heart attacks are more dangerous health risks than are fires,” Korzelius emphasized.
Staying within a $180,000 budget (2012-2013) is challenging, especially when one set of firefighter turnout gear — boots, pants, coat, gloves, and a Nomex® fiber hood (protects neck area) — is $3,500 without the air pack (breathing apparatus), and $6,000 with it.
“I’m obligated to outfit every person,” Korzelius noted. Clothing lifespan is about 10 years, yet it can become costly, especially if someone chooses not to continue past basic training.
In addition to maintaining volunteers’ health and skills, the department strives for state-of-the-art firefighting equipment. A new pumper truck (pumps water and is used in car accidents) will arrive by December or January to replace 20-year-old Engine 87.
In March, the village Board of Trustees unanimously awarded a $629,438 bid to Pierce Manufacturing Inc., in Appleton, Wisconsin, which is building a 2012 Pierce Velocity exactly to department specifications.
In mid-June, Korzelius and several fire captains visited the plant for a pre-construction meeting. “New-age trucks last 20 or more years,” he explained, waxing mysterious about the color. “It’s a secret, and I’m sure the village will be pleased.”
Integral to the department is its 22-member Junior Corps, the largest in the county.
Residents in the Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown area ages 14 and 17 may join with parental permission. Members are trained in basics of firefighting and wear the same equipment, have limited call assignments, and must maintain good grades and display good citizenship.
“They (members) hang around the fire station, and when a call comes in, we have 10 to 12 firefighters per alarm, whereas we’d have three to four people on shift if they were paid, a huge savings to taxpayers,” Korzelius stated.
Village Administrator Anthony P. Giaccio praised the department and said the village is proud of its volunteers. “Through the combination of their hard work and Village Board support, the village has been able to provide professional and reliable emergency services that the residents of Sleepy Hollow can depend upon.”
Teen volunteers marched in the Ossining Fireman’s Parade last August, their first judged parade, and received top honors for Best Appearing Junior Corps.
Marine jurisdiction extends south to the Tarrytown border, west halfway out to the Hudson, and north to the Ossining border, encompassing two northern districts. Boats are kept at the Tarrytown Boat Club, for which Korzelius is grateful.
“They’re very nice to us and never charge a fee. I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
During the past five years, the department was awarded four times for preventing would-be suicides off the bridge. “Water rescues in the Hudson River are treacherous — you have wind, currents, barges and other boats,” Korzelius said.
Not surprisingly, he opposes a Tappan Zee Bridge-park.
“It’s not a good idea for many reasons, foremost is safety,” he declared. Currently, strategically-placed cameras on the bridge notice when a car stops; patrolling the span for would-be jumpers is trickier with pedestrian traffic. “If someone is having a bad day, walking across the span, the risk is greater,” Korzelius observed.
Last October the department hosted its first Open House at the Beekman Street station as part of National Fire Prevention Week (October 9 to 15). The day featured numerous demonstrations, fire truck rides for kids, and valuable fire prevention tips and safety instructions.
Korzelius said a more expansive event planned for the fall will include police and EMS demonstrations.
New members are always welcome; Junior Corps applicants need parental permission. No prior experience is required, and state-approved training is provided for all new members at the Westchester County Emergency Services Fire Training Center in Valhalla.
For detailed information about S.H.F.D., including its history and how to join, visit http://sleepyhollowfd.org/.