Some people know what they’re going to be when they grow up even before they grow up.
Sam Appa leans back behind the paper-strewn desk that he occupies at Ulster Hose Company #5 and remembers with a smile when he knew his destiny. “I was 14, maybe 15 years old when I knew I wanted to be a fireman.” He smiles again at the memory and shakes his head. “I’ve been chief for seven years. Been with Ulster Hose for 38 years. I worked my way up through the ranks. Never had a doubt.”
Nor does he have a doubt about his role within those ranks. He’s the chief, yeah; but so much of firefighting is about teamwork. The chance to be part of that team is no small part of its appeal. Working with the other members of the company is more like an honor than a duty.
Appa retired last year after 33 years as a dispatcher at the Dutchess County Department of Emergency Response. Like others in the company, he loves having the chance to escape the drudgery of a nine-to-five job. “It’s the not-knowing. I could be sitting here talking to you and in a minute, something devastating could happen.”
Ulster Hose #5’s 85 members are responsible for 13.2 square miles of real estate encompassing a population of 7,000 that waxes and wanes with the heavy traffic along car-clogged Ulster Avenue, the county’s primary retail stretch. If you view the Fire District from that vantage point – as a glut of character-free big boxes, impatient travelers and glaring neon signage – it’s hard to detect any signs of community. But a sense of community lies at the heart of the fire station. Volunteering at this or any other fire company isn’t only about protecting a community; it’s about creating and living within one.
The company was founded in 1940 by two men, Albert Montavani and John Osterhoudt. Their first fire vehicle was Osterhoudt’s Packard, which was equipped with rakes, brooms, fire extinguishers and a first-aid kit. Upon hearing the company’s siren, which was attached to a pole outside Osterhoudt’s home, the entire fire company would rush outside their homes and wait to be picked up on his way to the call.
Just about everything except what Appa calls the “family atmosphere” of the company has changed since then. Sometimes family involvement stretches back through generations. The son of one of the company’s original members, William J. Williams, has been a member of the company since the 1960s. And his son is a member today.
What is it about being a fireman? “We all have a passion for what we do that was instilled in us,” Appa says. “A fireman is a special breed of person – and that’s no disrespect to anyone else. I see the commitment these guys put in. I see what they witness when they go out in the field to help somebody, when they’re called to duty. Some of these things are a tremendous burden on the mind, to take home with you, when you put your head on the pillow.”
Then, there are other times: “Most recently, we had a young girl, 16, get hit by a train in town. She was in a very critical situation. And that was truly a call where our people went out there and made a difference in her life. The emergency medical service is a chain, and we’re just one of the links in it. But that day, all the links fell into place for her. Within minutes we were there, working on her. The ambulance was there, working with us. A few minutes later, the helicopter arrived. She was in Albany Medical Center probably within 45 minutes, where she needed to be. We’ve been assured by her doctors and her mother that she’ll regain a normal life.”
Life as a firefighter, as a member of a team working with other teams, is good. “So many jobs are routine. Here, there’s camaraderie; we do things together, we care about each other. Some go on vacations together, go to dinner together…”
Just then, the radio down the hall crackles to echoing life. “They got a worker?” Appa asks a man named Jeff who just walked past his office door. “Yeah,” says Jeff. “Says they got flames showing.”
A fire has broken out at Kingston’s Hoffman House restaurant. Appa’s up and out of his chair, making his apologies. The unpredictable has happened. There is work to be done.