For 28 years, Richard Prudente's days were a dull parade of loading docks and triplicate bills of lading. But his nights and weekends were spent amid sirens and smoke.
The export business paid well enough, but volunteering with the Huntington Manor Fire Department was more rewarding.
In 1980, he plucked a small boy from a blazing home at Christmastime. In 1994, he saved a man from burning to death in a car wreck. And in 2003, not long after he retired from his day job, he risked his life to pull two people from the smoky second-story bedroom of an adult group home.
Arriving directly from home that July 3 morning, he scrambled unprotected up a neighbor's rickety ladder and through a window. He quickly handed off a terrified woman to a fellow volunteer, then took a deep breath and crawled into the smoke.
It took two trips back to the window for air before his hands brushed against a heavy-set, incoherent man clinging to the leg of a bed. Unable to budge him, the room growing hotter, Prudente gathered one last breath of fresh air, then dived back in to wrench the man free and muscle him toward waiting volunteers. Just as they all hit the lawn, the house exploded in flames. Prudente shielded the victim with his own body.
"Anyone else in my fire department would have done the same thing," said Prudente, 51, who shared a state firefighter-of-the-year award with two other volunteers for the rescue. "That's the kind of people I associate with everyday. It's a good feeling."
Newcomers to Long Island are often startled to learn that one of the nation's most affluent regions has left a basic public safety responsibility in the hands of unpaid residents who answer calls for help just because they want to.
About 20,000 Long Islanders provide fire-and-rescue services for the benefit of the remaining 2.7 million, and they are intensely proud of the work they do. They are the ones, the saying goes, who are running into the burning building when everyone else is running out. The fire service dominates volunteers' leisure hours and comes to shape their identities, so much so that many have come to see themselves as a breed apart, misunderstood by those outside their circle.
Keeping tradition alive
Firefighters, whether paid or volunteer, are indeed different, says Robert Scott, a clinical psychologist with the Los Angeles Fire Department who has studied the personalities of emergency workers. As a group, they are action-oriented, resilient risk-takers, generally traditional in their thinking and conservative in their values, who find powerful gratification in helping others in crisis.
"They want to be there when things are not going right, and they feel like they have the skills and abilities and knowledge to make things right," Scott said. "... It's a very deep need that gets filled."
The firefighters themselves often admit they only dimly understand the complicated mix of habit, tradition, emotional need and selflessness that drives them. Some talk about the thrill of saving a life and the deadly beauty of fire itself. Others value the fellowship and social ties they have found in their firehouse, and still others say they just want to help people.
"It's a question you could never, ever answer," said Edward Lutz, chief of the Elmont Fire Department. "What type of person runs into a burning building for no pay to try to save someone's life and property?"
New York's volunteers suffer hundreds of injuries and a dozen or so deaths on duty each year, but that does not seem to deter them.
Lutz, 40, a retired city police officer who won a medal of valor this year for rescuing a construction worker shocked by a 7,500-volt power line, called himself an "adrenaline junkie," but said there's more to it than that.
"It's a sense of accomplishment. You are doing something positive. The way the world is today ... it's a dying tradition."
That tradition goes straight back to the founding fathers and the ethic of civic responsibility that has been a cherished source of national pride. Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire company, and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere were among many early patriots who were volunteer firefighters.
Though it remains a mostly blue-collar, male fraternity, the firefighting tradition on Long Island brings together bus drivers and judges, cops and bankers, highway workers and politicians. Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato was an Island Park firefighter for five years; Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota fought fires in Garden City Park as a young man; and Suffolk County Sheriff Alfred Tisch served a decade in Setauket.
For the privilege of belonging to a firehouse, volunteers must swear an oath to protect the lives and property of residents. It may send Bay Shore firefighters out into a blizzard with shovels to clear driveways for the elderly; spur a Huntington Manor fire chief to give a lift to a panicked bride when floods block her from getting to the church on time; or drive Copiague volunteers to abandon their annual picnic and wade through shoreline marshes when they learn a boater is missing.
"That's the way Long Island is," said Michael Pastore, 39, a former Huntington Manor chief. "It showed through the wildfires, and it showed through 9/11 when we went in to help in the city. Whatever's asked of us, we do, big or small."
Paying it forward
The volunteers' work is more valuable to their community precisely because they are not paid for it, believes Jeff Spencer, a security guard and Hempstead volunteer firefighter who teaches schoolchildren about fire safety.
"When you tell these kids you volunteer and what volunteer really means," he said, "they're taken aback."
He likens the volunteer example to the experiment in altruism depicted in the movie "Pay it Forward."
"You do something good for three people, and they do something good for three people, and you keep it going ... We show them that somebody cares about them, and that there are still heroes in this world."
Elmont builder Charlie Gonzalez, 44, says he joined for the excitement but now finds volunteering a form of relaxation. A retired police officer, he answered 384 fire calls last year and said that, compared to policing, this kind of public safety work is "like a therapy" because people are always glad to see firefighters arrive.
"I didn't join the fire department to get rewarded for anything; I do it to reward myself," he said. "It's personal rewards, of doing good for somebody ... It's more satisfying because I'm not paid. I get up in the middle of the night because I want to, because when my radio goes off, it sounds like somebody is in need of something."
'No better feeling'
For many, it's a simple sense of duty.
Elizabeth Kelly, 40, a Pace University administrator and trained lifeguard, grew up spending barefoot summers in the 400-home Fire Island community of Saltaire, where her family had a beach house and everybody pretty much knew everyone. Whenever the alarm sounded, she and the other kids were drawn to the firehouse. As they grew up, and some of them began to join, "It just hit me at some point that I was very capable." She's been a Saltaire volunteer for about 20 years now, answering alarms under the leadership of chiefs she used to baby-sit.
"I can't imagine hearing that alarm going off and not being helpful," she said. " ... This is my hometown that I love."
Others confess to what may be the biggest open secret of the volunteer fire service: the pleasure to be had working with all those shiny trucks and bright lights.
Prudente, the Huntington Manor volunteer, recalled a boyhood spent pretending to be a fireman as he rode his bike, racing to the firehouse whenever the siren sounded to watch the trucks pull out.
"My wife always asks me when I'm going to grow up, and I say never -- a lot of the guys' wives feel the same way," he said. "We're just big boys with bigger toys now."
Yet volunteers also say youthful motives have a way of deepening the longer they serve.
The firehouse was a second home for Floral Park Asst. Chief Frank Wakely, a chief's son who grew up playing ball with other volunteers' kids. When they turned 18, those kids joined the department so they could speed around in souped-up trucks on its tournament racing team, the Doodlebugs. Between the racing and emergency runs, "you were at the firehouse all the time," he said. " ... It was a great bunch of guys."
The habit stuck. Twenty-five years older now, and working as a trucking manager for Federal Express, Wakely still finds a second home at the firehouse, but now he's the one sorting the mail and encouraging the kids. He has come to appreciate the serious responsibilities they all share, and has gotten trained as an emergency medical technician.
"Of all the guys that were on the drill team, I'm the last to become chief," he said.
Whether they wear fire gear or ride the ambulance, whether they are plumbers or lawyers, volunteers who have helped save someone's life tend to describe it as one of the defining experiences of their lives, sustaining their commitment through years of mundane duties.
"Pulling somebody out of a building -- there is no better feeling," said Tom Foley, 49, a former Garden City chief.
Bringing somebody back from the dead is right up there. Prudente was at the Huntington Manor firehouse on the afternoon of June 3 this year when a passing motorist suddenly crashed into a tree just up the street. The volunteers drove over and discovered his heart had stopped. They stretched him out right there in the middle of New York Avenue and began taking turns giving him CPR and a series of shocks with a defibrillator. For a long five minutes, there was nothing. Finally, Prudente detected a pulse. After they loaded the man into an ambulance, the volunteers hugged and went home ecstatic.
"I told my wife and kids, I said, 'What a great day I had today,' " he recalled. He hears the man is doing fine now. "Not too many people get to make that much of a difference."