Central New York volunteer firefighters giving back to community
By Marilyn Pinsky
What do a trombonist, a law professor, a steel worker, a nursing professor, an X-ray technician and a fire coordinator have in common?
They all volunteer for their local fire departments.
When you read their stories and realize that age is not a barrier to performing many needed tasks and that not everyone in a fire department runs into burning buildings wearing heavy equipment, I hope you will consider becoming a volunteer yourself.
Most fire departments in Onondaga County are staffed with volunteers 55 and older, according to Joe Rinefierd, director of the fire bureau for Onondaga County Emergency Management.
“There is such a shortage of volunteers that everyone is needed. And not everyone needs to be a firefighter,” he said. “Many departments are corporations with boards of directors that need people familiar with business and Robert’s Rules of Order to run the organizations.”
Let’s start with the Maroneys.
Thomas J. Maroney’s day job is professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law. For the past two years, he has been a volunteer fire police officer in the Fayetteville Fire Department. Dr. Mary Kay Maroney, director and professor emerita of the department of nursing at Utica College, is an emergency medical technician with the fire department.
“Though I had been a nurse and nurse educator for many years and enjoyed the patient care aspect of nursing, I soon learned that being an EMT is very different from professional nursing care,” said Maroney.
“EMT work is pre-hospital care, basically assessing, stabilizing, treating and transporting,” he said. “As an example, in a dog bite situation, when we reach the scene we are concerned about everyone’s safety, not just the person who has been bitten. We need to ask ‘where is the dog?’, stabilize the patient and transport to the hospital if necessary.”
Having been U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York for five years, and a volunteer with the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary for 15 years, Maroney knows how law enforcement works.
“The fire police are an adjunct to law enforcement, with very limited law enforcement authority of our own,” he said. “The primary mission is traffic and crowd control. Everything is safety first—for yourself and for the scene. We set up traffic cones to protect the area where the firefighters and EMS are working, and that could be anywhere from a busy road, to a mall, to a residential neighborhood. You get there, assess the situation and block off the area if necessary.”
In tune with volunteering—The fire police captain for the Fayetteville Fire Department is William “Bill” Harris. A charter member of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Harris retired as principal trombonist after 48 years.
He is professor emeritus of music at Onondaga Community College and artist affiliate in Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music. His most recent honor is induction into Nottingham High School’s Wall of Fame.
How does a classical musician become a volunteer firefighter?
“In 1992, the SSO had a money crisis and shut down from March to November,” explains Harris. “A great friend of mine from Syracuse University Marching Band days in the ‘60s, Tom Cook, was the fire police captain in Fayetteville where I’ve lived since 1966. So I knew all the guys socially but never had the time to be involved except to be friends.”
“I was always a fire buff and when the symphony shut down, Tom asked me to be in the fire police. I started taking fire course after fire course and absolutely loved it,” Harris said.
“It’s been a great 20 years. In the fire department, instead of an ‘I-me’ mentality, it’s ‘we-us’; it’s neighbors helping neighbors like our founding fathers intended. If you’re in the ‘we-us’ mode to make America better, this is the place to be. Compared to what I did all my life, I especially like the uniqueness of this whole thing,” Harris noted.
Vital to help others—Paul Whorrall, 58, retired from the U.S. Postal Service, is the volunteer fire chief and administrator of emergency services for the village of Manlius.
“It’s the sense of being able to help the community in an activity that is exciting,” said Whorrall. “Not only are you helping your own community, but it is personally fulfilling. True, there is a little of the adrenaline rush, but the main thing is what you can do to help people.”
“We have different levels of activity and allow people to do what they feel they’re capable of doing, from interior firefighting to scene support to fire police. There are people who do emergency medical services, drivers, EMTs and paramedics. We train people for everything. Most classes are held locally at night and on weekends.”
“For instance, to drive trucks and ambulances, all you need is a valid driver’s license, and over a couple of days, we will put you through an emergency vehicle operators course,” Whorrall said. “If you want to be an EMT, we provide the training and if you want to go on to become a paramedic, we’ll pay for that too.”
A volunteer firefighter since 1960, Mike Waters is a member of the Jordan Fire Department. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as public affairs officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel and was the fire coordinator for Onondaga County for over 29 years.
“I had wanted to be a fireman since I was a little kid and that feeling never left,” said Waters. “You build life-long friendships in the fire services, and sure, there’s a certain amount of excitement to it and, if you want, there are mental and physical challenges involved.”
‘Man against nature’—What’s it like to be a firefighter?
“It’s man against nature, it’s teamwork, it’s like a symphony where all the different parts have to be working together for it to be successful,” Waters said. “s a retired military officer, it’s a lot like a military operation. A bond is built with people who have faced the same adverse emergency conditions. You have to rely on them and they on you.”
The Onondaga Nation volunteer fire chief is Ronald Shenandoah, age 62. Shenandoah was a structural iron worker for many years, then an over-the-road truck driver for Jaquith Industries for over 13 years, He now works for the Nation.
“The Onondaga Nation Fire Department has been in existence in its new incarnation for 11 years,” Shenandoah said. “Prior to that, we had our own patrol and when the Nedrow Fire Department got a call that was on the Nation and would respond, I met them and showed them where to go.”
“Then Nedrow Fire Chief Harold Smith asked if volunteers on the Nation would like CPR and First Aid training so we could take care of patients until the Nedrow FD arrived,” said Shenandoah.
“Next, he asked us to join the fire department in Nedrow, so we started working with them,” Shenandoah said. “In 1998, we had a house fire on the reservation where a person died and all the people involved except two were from the Nation. A couple of the chiefs suggested we have our own fire department and that’s how it started.”
Many roles to fill—“Not everyone has to be an interior firefighter and there’s a place for everyone. In our department, the ages run from about 25 to 62 and we have two women firefighters. My youngest brother is an EMT and an interior firefighter, and for me, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve with him,” he added.
“From a chief’s point of view, the concern for your members starts whenever the sirens ring; not necessarily for a fire, it could be a sick person. It lasts even after you’ve parked the rig and it occupies your mind all night. You’re either worried that your members might get hurt or you’re feeling good that you know they are home safely,” Shenandoah said.
Bob Milton, 83, of the Jordan Fire Department, is still active after 61 years, 18 as chief and now as a life member. Leaving the Navy after World War II, he retired as a tool and die maker from Welch-Allyn. “I really enjoy helping people in need and working on and operating apparatus,” Milton said.
No gender barrier here—Rosemary Donnelly, 72, is from neighboring Meridian in Cayuga County.
By profession, Donnelly is a medical assistant X-ray technician, and as a volunteer, she is a first responder in the Meridian Fire Department for any emergencies requiring the rescue truck.
“I got involved with the Meridian Fire Department when we moved here from New Jersey 35 years ago. This is a rural community, and as many of the men farmed and were not available during the day, women became involved,” she said.
Because her mother was active in the fire auxiliary, Donnelly is still involved in her fire department auxiliary.
Another female firefighter hails from Oswego County. Joni Hinds, 55, was the first woman chief of the Cleveland Fire Department.
“My husband has been a firefighter since he was in high school, and our two sons joined when they each turned 16,” she said. “When the youngest joined I was left home alone. My son suggested I join too. I was 43 at the time.”
Hinds progressed through the ranks. She started as treasurer, became engineer of a vehicle, then president and chief engineer overseeing all engineers. She spent several years as a lieutenant, then worked her way up the chief ranks. During this time, she was also in school working on an ALS degree through the Corning/NYS Fire Academy.
“My father taught my brother about machinery but because I was a girl, he didn’t think to teach me, so I loved the opportunity the fire department gave me to do things with vehicles. As a firefighter, you are genderless; it is just respect for the job you do,” she said.
Madison County firefighter James Clark, 55, joined the Lincoln Fire and Rescue Department when he was 51. “I’ve lived in my community for 30 years and when the department was looking for volunteers, I saw this as my chance to give back,” he said. “It keeps me young, keeps me in shape and I’m doing something worthwhile.”