By Ronni Diamondstein • Photos by Jim D’Angelo
If you are looking for selfless people in Chappaqua, you can find them any Thursday evening around 7:30 at the Chappaqua Fire House. With a strong sense of duty, the Chappaqua Fire Department volunteer fire fighters get together so their equipment is always ready to respond. “Neighbors Helping Neighbors since 1910″ is the slogan they adopted in 2005 to emphasize the spirit of their membership. “We are all highly dedicated fire professionals with significant training,” said Russell Maitland, First Assistant Chief, who spoke on behalf of the Chappaqua Fire Department. Founded in 1910, the Chappaqua Fire Department embodies a suburban tradition and esprit de corps. After more than a century, it remains a 100% volunteer organization. The department has three companies: Fire Patrol, Independent and Bristol, which used to perform different functions at fires. “However, 20 years ago we did away with that, and now everyone is trained on all aspects of firefighting,” says Maitland. “The three companies still exist for social purposes only.” Members are people you see in town. They are men and women of all ages who work in local establishments, coach soccer, and eat in the restaurants.
Every week the volunteers meet for House Duty at the firehouse where equipment is checked and maintained. They have three Pumper Engines, one Tower Ladder, one Heavy Rescue and one Utility Vehicle. “We operate out of the main firehouse at 491 King Street,” says Maitland, “and we utilize the other firehouse (on Senter Street) for the utility vehicle and a 1937 antique fire truck.” They go on about 550 calls a year, many of them to the site of auto accidents. Most of the fire calls are false alarms and some are not fires at all. On a very cold day in February 2001, I came home to a strong smell of gas inside my townhouse. It seemed that my housekeeper had been there earlier in the day and accidentally hit the knob on my gas range. I opened all the windows, turned the thermostat off, and called the New Castle police to find out if there was something else I should do. While I didn’t think it was necessarily an emergency, I did ask, “Do you think someone should check this?” In no time, the Chappaqua Fire Chief arrived followed by several fire trucks and a dozen or so firefighters, some who had just stepped off the train. They checked all levels of my home and the air was tested to be sure it was safe to occupy.
To maintain this volunteer organization, new members are always needed. Recruits should be 16 years old, live or work in the Fire District and be able to complete NYS Firefight I (basic training) within the first year of membership. Maitland says training is ongoing and available every week. “Training is the most important aspect of what we do. Training saves lives—ours as well as those we protect.” And the firefighters have at least one drill each month. According to Maitland, modern technology has enhanced the fire department’s ability to operate more efficiently and safely. “One cannot rely solely on technology, for if it fails to operate correctly, we need to be able to fall back on our training (prior to technology) to resolve an issue at hand.” Their motto is: “Everyone goes home.” Maitland explains this philosophy and how important the training really is. “Firefighting itself is dangerous and we minimize injuries with a high level of training and in each situation the Fire Chief weighs the risk/benefit.” In April, two of the company’s female volunteers took part in Hudson Valley’s first women-only firefighter training. The rigorous training enhances the confidence of women fire fighters.
Chappaqua Fire Department volunteers are very enthusiastic about the service they perform for the community. From the seventeen-year-old high school seniors who tout this as “the best kind of community service” to the department’s octogenarian, the enthusiasm is infectious. When asked why they do this, they say, “It’s the most direct way to contribute to the community and give back.” Their overwhelming sentiment about the people they work with is that they are “awesome!” The department’s motto could be, “All for one, and one for all,” since they think of themselves as one indivisible unit.
No story about the Chappaqua Fire Department would be complete without mentioning the third-generation Chappaqua resident, Doug Hunter. Hunter, at age 83, is the oldest active member of the volunteers. During his 63 years as a volunteer, he has served as Fire Chief and Fire Commissioner. He feels a strong camaraderie with his fellow firefighters. “We’re like a family. They help you out when you need help,” says Hunter who still trains and goes out on calls, “And they love what they are doing.”
The Chappaqua Fire Department receives much of its funding from the community. “Tax dollars go towards the purchase of fire apparatus, equipment, training, firehouse maintenance, insurance, fire prevention activities at the schools, etc.,” says Maitland. Donations from individuals defray the cost of items not covered by tax dollars such as CFD-sponsored community activities. You will see members of the Chappaqua Fire Department marching in the Memorial Day Parade in May and at Community Day in September. Firefighters organize the annual Easter Egg Hunt, a Pancake Breakfast, and Fire Prevention Week Open House.
Maitland recommends that community members come to the Fire Prevention Week Open House in October to learn life saving information. During that week, volunteer firefighters will visit local schools. Parents need to reinforce what the children learn from the firefighters. He adds, “Parents should listen to their children when they come home from school after a day of fire-prevention instruction.” More safety tips are available on the Chappaqua Fire Department website, www.chappaquafd.org/ Click the “Safety Information Link.”
The Chappaqua Fire Department is a major presence in the town. “We all have a stake in our community and we take a lot of pride in what drives us to do what we do,” says Maitland about the entire Chappaqua Fire Department’s commitment to their neighbors. “So get out and shake hands with your volunteer firefighters and thank them.”
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When Chappaqua resident Arlene Maas’s dog barked to awaken and alert the family to a fire in their home at 2:00AM, the Millwood Fire Department came to their rescue. “The Millwood Fire Department serves 600 Chappaqua families,” says Michael Horan, Chief of the Millwood Fire Department. The 9.18 square mile fire district protects the entire hamlet of Millwood and parts of Ossining as well as part of Chappaqua. Like Chappaqua, it is an entirely volunteer organization and responds from two stations to approximately two hundred fifty calls a year. (For more information about the Millwood Fire District visit their website www.millwoodfire.org)
One such call was to the Maas’s home on that windy November night in 2004. Everything happened so quickly, recalls Maas. Before she knew it, not only were firefighters from Millwood there, but also volunteers from Chappaqua, Mount Kisco and Ossining. The volunteers went above and beyond for the Maas family. “They made sure that everyone was safe and safely out of the house including our four pets,” said Maas. “We were basically standing in the woods watching our house burn and watching the firefighters risk their lives in order to try to salvage our home.” During the chaos, one of their cats was so scared that she escaped from Maas’s arms. “One of the firefighters did not stop looking until he found her and he did.” Maas has high praise for the volunteers. “They were ever so kind to us and are to be commended. They were there for us and they will be there for you.”
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Muriel Lipschitz, a 34-year member of the Chappaqua Fire Patrol passed away on June 12 after a brief illness. A loving wife, sister, aunt, friend, teacher and firefighter, Muriel was always friendly, fun, helpful, caring and compassionate and will be missed and remembered by all who were lucky enough to know her. She held the distinction of being the first female fighter in the Chappaqua Fire Department. (Info courtesy of the Chappaqua Fire Department.)
Ronni Diamondstein, owner of Maggie Mae Pup Reporter is a Chappaqua based freelance writer, PR consultant, award-winning photographer and a School Library Media Specialist and teacher who has worked in the US and abroad.