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Long IslandLI Life

Heated debate: Brother vs. brother

They laugh every time they tell the story, and they have been telling it for 17 years.

Roslyn Highlands Fire Chief James McCann pulls up to an apartment house fire one afternoon in 1988. Smoke pouring out the windows. Crowd in the street. His men swarm the building front and back; they force the door of the burning apartment and enter. Then a voice pierces the curtain of smoke; it belongs to John Ceriello, one of his most eager young firefighters.

"Hey, Jamie! There's somebody in here!"

Telling it again, McCann's face arranges itself the way Abbott's used to look when Costello was trying his patience.

"Well, then why don't you bring 'em on out?" he bellows, leaving out the language that gave such a shudder to the old ladies watching from the curb that day. Telling it, McCann breaks up all over again.

They can laugh about it because of how the story ends: Ceriello and his partner save an old woman, and then Ceriello goes back in and puts out the fire.

Since then, the two men have shared a bond they don't bother trying to explain, though they disagree about almost everything else these days.

McCann, 50, is the Highlands president now, while Ceriello has moved on to become a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department. McCann is fighting to protect his membership from all kinds of looming threats -- alarms up, roster down, rising complaints about spending and merger negotiations with the fire company next door. Ceriello, 43, a second-generation Highlands firefighter, has become convinced that it is long past time for the hometown department he loves to go paid.

Each knows everything the other is going to say.

"I guarantee in the end it would be cheaper," insists Ceriello, now an honorary member, "and even if it's not cheaper, you're guaranteeing a crew in front of your door that knows what to do. Not the baker, the plumber, the off-duty cop. Not my father, my 75-year-old father, who shouldn't be on the rig at all. Not the high school kid who just ran down from the high school. This has nothing to do with the dedication of the individuals. It has everything to do with the nature of living on Long Island."

These arguments don't get far with McCann.

"That's a great story coming from a guy that probably knew nothing about anything to do with firematics until he joined here," he scoffs.

Long Islanders get good service at bargain prices from their volunteer departments, in part because they have so many firehouses, McCann believes.

"If they went to a paid situation, who would be the one to give up their firehouse?" McCann says. "... That's why I don't see it happening during my lifetime ... It's really not an issue at this point."

How can the debate about the future of Long Island's fire departments be anything but touchy? For people like McCann and Ceriello, the quarrel is all in the family.

The younger man is a firehouse brat, a former chief's nephew, son of one of the department's most senior members, who keeps coming back even after moving to Brooklyn from Roslyn Heights to do things like teach a ropes course, march in the centennial parade, or help run a poker night.

Roslyn, Ceriello says, is "where my mother and father were born ... I'll always respect it as the place I learned to apply a trade ... It's very near and dear to my heart."

McCann, by his own account, was a "wild" high school kid who found a sense of direction in the Highlands department. He was soon the chief, helping direct rescue efforts after an Avianca Airlines jet crashed in Cove Neck in 1990. He has since devoted himself to maintaining the department's traditions and spirit through rapidly changing times, including hiring the first employee, who helps answer fire calls.

"You hear about the brotherhood in the city and how strongly they feel about each other?" McCann asks. "Well, this is what I've done for my entire adult life."

That, Ceriello says, is why it's so hard to talk about all of this.

"I'm attacking his life -- of course he's going to defend it and be mad about it," he says. " ... There is an ostrich, head-in-the-sand mentality when it comes to where the volunteerism is going.

"... In an area as heavily populated as Nassau County, you can't guarantee a fire engine in front of your house with a crew in five minutes? You can't guarantee that?"

McCann says he doesn't know his department's response time -- it averages 8 minutes 8 seconds -- but scoffs at the challenge.

"Five minutes? He can guarantee that any place in New York City?" (New York's engines averaged 4 minutes and 35 seconds in September). Roslyn Highlands doesn't send out an engine until it has at least six people aboard, he says; the city rolls with fewer. And remember where Ceriello came from.

"Our training and the expertise he gained here is what directed him towards that career," McCann notes.

The debate pretty much ends there. The two men would rather talk about other things anyway when they meet, to bust chops or compare notes on solid-bore nozzles.

"He was a very good chief," Ceriello says of McCann.

"He was a good member," McCann says of Ceriello. " ... He and I have a history together."

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