When Saltaire's Fire Department formed 50 years ago, almost anyone within sight of a blaze could tag along and help.
Now, as the department looks back on decades of keeping village residents and their homes safe, any adult can apply for the voluntary gig -- but a lot more training is required.
“Back then, it was a bucket brigade of guys who would come down,” said Vern Henriksen, 59, a former fire chief who spoke about how 30 years ago, trained firefighters would accept help from nearly everyone. “If they were in the area, and they heard an alarm go out, they would actually be able to hop on the truck; they would use the gear that was on the truck to help us fight the fire."
While state regulations have become stricter — dictating who can help fight a fire or respond to a medical emergency — the sense of community remains the same, officials said.
"The equipment is bigger and more sophisticated, but the spirit of people helping out in emergencies stayed the same,” said Village Administrator Mario Posillico, who has volunteered as a firefighter for more than two decades.
Saltaire has 40 volunteers, some of whom are medical technicians and some are firefighters. Some do both jobs, said Josh Raeben, assistant chief with the department. Both groups have to routinely partake in additional training to maintain certifications, he said.
“Anyone can put in an application. It’s the ongoing requirements that are a challenge,” Raeben said
The volunteers are tasked with monitoring the 400 homes in the village. While the number of fulltime residents in Saltaire is about 50, another 3,000 flock to the Fire Island village in the summer. Even during the busy season, firefighters and residents know each other by first name, Raben said.
“It’s a small community,” Raeben said. “We know the people that we’re dealing with. There’s a real, one-on-one ... with the people that we serve.”
The department handles about 70 calls per year, the large majority being for medical events, Raeben said. Some of the big challenges are limited resources, including not having a set number of volunteers. During the winter, with fewer eyes and ears in the village, the department may be not be notified of a fire quickly. Fire departments across Fire Island neutralize fewer resources by sending their volunteers and equipment to each other's emergencies, Raeben said.
Fire Island's difficult terrain and limits on vehicles means Saltaire uses two Ford F550 trucks that carry fire hoses instead of a traditional firetruck. It also has several Utility Task Vehicles, which resemble golf carts used to carry equipment. All the departments’ vehicles are equipped with four-wheel drive, helping them maneuver within the village’s narrow eight-foot walkways, Raeben said.
Henriksen, who also is the head of Saltaire’s Department of Public Works, recalled a fire on Jan. 3, 1999. The blaze began in a shed attached to a beach house and consumed multiple homes, Henriksen said. He was a fire chief at the time and one of many firefighters who went inside a burning home.
“I love doing it,” he said. “You have to love doing it, otherwise you’re not going to stick with it because it’s a volunteer job.”
Saltaire's Volunteer Fire Company
- Incorporated as a nonprofit on June 22, 1969.
- In 1986 became the first on Fire Island to offer ambulance services.
- Has a radio service connected to Suffolk County's 911 center, while it also links to the nine other fire departments on Fire Island.