by Bill Batson
When a gas main exploded on North Broadway on Thursday June 21 releasing a 25-foot pillar of flame, it was the volunteers of the Nyack Fire Department that subdued the blaze. Two blasts followed by four blasts from the electronic whistle that is located at the Fire House on Park Street told the 160 members of the Department where to converge. Mercifully, there were only a few minor injuries that day. On this July 4th, the Nyack Sketch log honors the 149 years of service by countless volunteers in the Nyack Fire Department.
For as long as I can remember, each time the whistle sounded someone in our household decoded the location of each Fire Department call using the dog-eared laminated chart held to the refrigerator by a magnet. The key to the alarm code is found on the back of a calendar that is distributed by the Fire Department during the second week of October each year. Every household in the village gets a calendar, a tradition that goes back to 1927.
Vigorous public discussion about the need for fire whistles is almost as old as the department itself. In the 19th century, alarms were raised by ringing a massive bell that once stood in front of the Mazeppa Fire House on Main Street. When the bell was finally retired to the tower of the North campus of Nyack College, a device known as the Mocking Bird took its place until steam power became obsolete. The current electronic whistle initially repeated the fire signal four times, but after opposition from neighbors adjacent to the firehouse, the number was reduced by two.
In an era of increasing reliance on wireless communication, some have predicted the demise of the fire whistle. But recent catastrophes have demonstrated that our dependence on complex electronic systems can leave us vulnerable. During blackouts, only people with landlines had uninterrupted phone service and on 9/11, mobile phone and Internet services were useless. Our whistle might be loud and old fashioned, but it’s universal and dependable.
Another advent of the modern era, the electronic fire alarm is also a mixed blessing to the fire department. With increasing frequency, volunteers race to false alarms caused by faulty computerized fire safety systems. Because every alarm must be investigated, false alarms expose volunteers to danger as they needlessly rush to the scenes where there is no real emergency. False alarms also waste limited fire fighting resources.
Rockland is the last county in New York State to have a 100% volunteer fire department and Nyack’s Fire Department is the oldest in the county. Most people would need to be coerced or conscripted into risking their lives or require some form of compensation to leave their jobs and their families. Not our volunteer fire fighters. But sadly, the future of the volunteer service is at risk because fewer people are stepping forward to serve.
Only two graduates in the latest class from the Rockland Country Fire Training Center will be joining the Nyack Department. Starting young seems to be the secret to the longevity of a volunteer.
Nyack Fire District Chairman Keith Taylor and Nyack Fire Department Chief Jim Petriello both started volunteering in their teens and have a combined 70 years of service. In a wonderful oral history, Everett “Smokey” Wannamaker describes 60 years of membership in the Empire Co. in Upper Nyack that started when he was 16.
The fire whistle you hear is a call to arms for your neighbors who volunteer to fight fires. We are fortunate to have their service and a reliable system to organize their actions of our behalf. Unlike a cell phone that can be lost, lose battery power or be put on vibrate; the fire whistle cannot be ignored. Because when your house is on fire, you want the prompt attention of the fire fighting cavalry.
If you want to become a volunteer or make a contribution to the Nyack Fire Department contact: (845) 358-5454.
Special thanks to Brian Jennings, the Librarian Supervisor at the Nyack Library and two of his predecessors, Virginia Parkhurst and LeRoy Gates, who lovingly and laboriously recorded the first 100 years of the Nyack Fire Dept. for a centennial journal entitled Alarms and Detail, published in 1963.
The Fire Department wishes to thank Nyack Gourmet, Pour House, Turriellos, O’Malley’s and Park Village Market for their generous contributions at the scene of the June 21st gas main fire on North Broadway.
Here are the companies of the Nyack Fire Department and the dates they were founded:
Orangetown Engine Co., No. 1 Established 1834
Mazeppa Engine Co., No.2 Established 1852
Empire Hook & Ladder Co., No. 1 Established 1863
Jackson Fire Engine Co., No. 3 Established 1867
Jackson Hose Co., Established 1880
Chelsea Hook & Ladder Co., No. 2 Established 1891
Highland Hose Co., Established 1895
Nyack Fire Patrol, Inc.Established 1915
The Department also maintains a Marine Unit that is docked at the Hook Mountain Yacht Club and a High Angle Unit housed at Central Station to rescue distressed hikers from Hook Mountain.
Gas Main Fire Photo Courtesy Richard Quinn, Nyack Village Theatre.