When Henry Gerdes joined the Huntington Fire Department in 1939, the unit had one truck and sounded a small siren to alert volunteers of an emergency.
Firefighters living too far north or south of 1 Main St., where the station was located until 1950, had trouble hearing the alarm so "the man on duty would just keep blowing it until enough people showed up,” said Gerdes, 92, of Huntington.
At that time, Gerdes said the firehouse reported 30 to 40 fires. Now, as the fire department, established in 1843, celebrates its 175th anniversary, about 100 firefighters handle almost 800 calls a year, said Bruce Smith, the department's fire district manager. The siren, nestled in the corner of the roof at the current fire house at 1 Leverich Place, has been replaced with a paging system.
Gerdes is the longest living member of the department. The honorary chief will serve as the grand marshal during Saturday's parade to celebrate the anniversary.
“It’s come a long way and it’s only through the hard work of volunteers,” Gerdes said of the department.
The evolution over the decades included the firefighting water supply system. In 1845, volunteers hauled a half-ton Mercheen hand pump to the scene of each fire, said Huntington Town historian Robert Hughes.
By the time Gerdes joined the department, the department had upgraded to a hydrant system. But in places such as Lloyd Neck, with no running water, crews relied on neighbors' pools or bodies of water to extinguish fires.
Equipment advancements led to better training. State and federal regulations require volunteers to undergo 120 mandatory training hours, not including the 9 hours of Occupational Safety and Health Administration training each member has to complete annually.
Gerdes summed up his on-the-job training nearly 80 years ago as, “Here’s the hose and put the water on the fire.”
Today, the department boasts six front-line fire trucks: three engine pumpers, a heavy rescue truck, tower truck and aerial ladder trucks, Smith said.
Buildings housing the department have grown from a two-car garage with a second floor to two buildings covering about three acres.
The department still attracts young volunteers just as it did when Gerdes joined.
Bill Martin, 22, of Huntington, is one of the youngest volunteers and said he’s wanted to become a firefighter since the first time he saw his dad on a truck working a fire in his neighborhood.
The recent graduate of Wagner College on Staten Island completed his interior fireman training weeks after getting his bachelor's in political science degree.
Martin, a second-generation firefighter, spent four years in the department's youth program and as a 10-year-old met Gerdes. The older firefighter always smiled, Martin recalled.
“It’s contagious," Martin said of the pride longtime members have toward the department. “It makes you want to get involved. It makes you want to be a part of it."
The Huntington Fire Department celebrates its 175th anniversary on Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. and will include:
- Parade beginning at 4 p.m., from Town Hall on Main Street to the department headquarters on Leverich Place
- Bouncy houses, pony rides and a dunk tank
- Musical selections by the NYPD Police Band
- Antique fire trucks and an original hand drawn pumper