Jeff Spencer thought he could save a few windows if he joined the Hempstead Fire Department.
"I always used to see the firemen going to people's houses, breaking windows and cutting the roof," said Spencer, 39. "Around here, you think, 'People don't have the money to repair the stuff.' I never understood why they did so much damage."
But once he started training as a firefighter, Spencer learned those axes weren't trashing his neighbors' homes but working to save them, venting heat and smoke to stop the fire from spreading.
Now, a decade after he first joined, Spencer has become the public face of the department, making countless appearances in schools and senior centers to explain who firefighters are and how they work.
Visiting his daughter Cheyenne's third-grade class at Franklin Elementary School in the spring, Spencer asked the children where they would go if they discovered their house was on fire.
The closet, kids often tell him, or under the bed. It's common, experienced firefighters say, for children to try to escape a fire by hiding from it, which makes rescuing them that much harder.
On this day, one boy raised his hand to suggest that a bathtub with water might be a safe place. Spencer just smiled and offered the example of a hot dog.
"You put it in a pot of water, the fire goes underneath it, boils the water and cooks the frank, right?"
Fire safety education is especially important in Hempstead because the village has more serious fires than any other community in Nassau County.
Though Hempstead's department has one of Long Island's leanest budgets, undergoing further cuts from the village this year, it is also one of the most highly regarded. Ambitious young volunteers move or commute to the village just for the chance to work in a busy firehouse.
Earlier this year, Spencer was honored for rescuing three victims of carbon-monoxide poisoning who had been overcome by fumes from a propane-powered generator while doing indoor renovations.
But he finds the work with children especially fulfilling.
"It's good to be in the mall and see a little kid walking with their parents and they say, 'Hey, Mommy, that's the fireman!' and you can tell it's making their day to say hi to me," Spencer said in an interview.
"That's the best feeling in the world."