A volunteer may train his entire life for a chief's duties, only to pass his term in office facing nothing more dangerous than a flaming Dumpster.
Still, you never know.
Eddie Koehler, 43, a deputy chief in Lawrence-Cedarhurst, was hosting friends for dinner last fall when his pager went off with news of an accident at Rockaway Turnpike and Peninsula Boulevard.
A wrecked Volvo sat in the intersection with someone inside. Further up was a smashed Buick, the driver apparently pinned. The stench of petroleum filled his lungs. An overturned tanker carrying 12,500 gallons of gasoline lay sprawled on its side in a parking lot between an animal hospital and a condominium complex. Gasoline pooled from the wreckage and trickled toward storm drains. A plume of smoke curled up from the engine. Overhead, he could see the condo residents at their windows, watching with concern. He looked up at the electric power lines and thought about the high-pressure gas main he knew was running right below his feet.
It was, in short, a dozen catastrophes waiting to happen.
The chief was on vacation. So it was up to Koehler to step into the role of incident commander, something he'd studied for one way or another since he became a volunteer at age 18.
Scarcely pausing for breath, he arranged for help from Nassau police, the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, the American Red Cross, the ASPCA and more than 30 other agencies.
Koehler earns his living as a city cop stationed in the Rockaways.
"I'm a nobody," he said with a laugh.
But under state law, wherever there is a fire or the danger of a fire, the local fire chief has authority over the scene and every agency that responds to it.
So those who came to tackle the would-be disaster that night followed Koehler's orders with ready deference.
"Yes, chief, nobody's going to come back into the area unless you tell us," said the Nassau police inspector.
"Chief, where do you want us?" asked the crew on the Port Authority crash-rescue truck.
Under Koehler's direction, an army of volunteer and paid emergency workers labored all night to secure the scene, treat the injured, shut down utilities and evacuate 135 people who lived within a 2,500-foot radius, borrowing the facilities of the Lawrence School District for those who needed a place to sleep.
Working through a thunderstorm that washed away their blanket of fire-retardant foam, they pumped out the remaining fuel from the tanker and cleaned up the spill with no further injuries, no fires and no harm to the pets next door.
Koehler, now the chief, said that having local volunteers in charge the way he was that night is a good financial deal for residents, but the benefits go much further.
"You're getting people that live in the community, that know the community, that care more about the community that they live in. It's home."
With volunteers, he said, "you get the attitude of, 'Not on my watch. Not in my town. It's not going to happen here.'"