For the first time in well over a generation, Dave Weeks no longer holds a leadership position in the Village of New Paltz Volunteer Fire Department. Weeks opted to step down rather than run for any of the three chief positions, but he leaves community fire protection in capable hands: fifth-generation firefighter Cory Wirthmann has taken on the role of chief, with Dylan Babcock and William Buboltz as his assistants. Both Wirthmann and Babcock have held chief-level positions before, which requires being on call eight hours a day and taking charge at emergency scenes.
Chief Wirthmann and Joe Miller, president of the fire company, sat down for an interview which included some demystifying of what goes on inside the firehouse. However, Wirthmann believes that the best way for New Paltz residents to get their questions answered is to knock on the door.
There are technically two organizations operating in tandem from within the village firehouses: a fire department which includes equipment paid for by New Paltz taxpayers and a fire company which is comprised of the volunteers which answer the call to save lives and property. The chiefs are at the top of the fire department command structure, while Miller is president of the fire company, which provides a social outlet for the volunteers. Solicitations for donations one might receive are to support the fire company, members of which enjoy camaraderie between calls, social events together and relaxation in front of a flat-screen television from one of a number of recliners. The firehouse may be alcohol-free, but company members nevertheless enjoy spending time there.
That isn’t to say that some members don’t occasionally imbibe together elsewhere, but as Miller put it, “We don’t party with our shirts on,” so to speak.
In summary, the business side of fire prevention is a government function, but the manpower is provided for free. The social side supports volunteers’ willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to do that. If there weren’t enough volunteers to keep the trucks manned, a professional department could be necessary. Mayor Tim Rogers imagines a professional department would cost about as much for taxpayers as the town police department — roughly $4 million annually — but Wirthmann thinks it might be as much as twice that. His reasoning is that fire trucks require a crew of five plus a supervisor, while there could be as few as three police officers on a given shift.
“A lot of people think we’re paid,” Wirthmann said, but living in New Paltz would be a great deal more costly if that were the case. Volunteers “do it because they want to,” not for a paycheck, and he firmly believes that there are other town residents who might not even realize that they want to. “If you don’t try, you’ll never get the bug,” he said.
Despite the fact that firefighters receive no pay whatsoever, they spend a considerable amount of time training for and responding to emergencies. A full training regimen can amount to hundreds of hours, and there are roughly two calls a day requiring their services. While it’s a village department, firefighters respond anywhere in the entire town; town taxpayers outside the village pay a share of keeping up and replacing equipment that’s proportional to the number of calls there.
Since the time investment is not inconsiderable, recruiting new volunteers requires creativity. Miller actually joined as a retiree, and serves as an exterior firefighter: he handles hoses and lifesaving equipment, but doesn’t run into burning buildings. While his description of that role was a bit self-deprecating, Wirthmann was clear that every job is vital when lives are on the line.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a junior firefighters program for residents 16 years of age and older. Even though he was born into a firefighting family, Wirthmann believes that being what was called a “cadet” in his youth helped him “get the bug” and want to be involved over the long haul. The average volunteer lasts just three to five years, meaning that there’s a constant need to recruit more from the populace. Most volunteers come from firefighting families, but allowing minors to observe allows them to quickly learn if this is something they wish to do more. Miller, a former high school teacher, oversees the three now in training; the department is approved for up to five junior firefighters. He’s also got eight years of service under his belt, making him a “gem” according to Wirthmann.
Miller’s father was a firefighter in Poughkeepsie, and he remembers playing at the firehouse as a child. Exposing children to the possibilities is the most effective recruitment tactic, Wirthmann said, because for someone off the street “we’re making up for 17 years of lost time” in helping them discover if this form of service is what they are called to do.
It’s also possible to become a specialist, Wirthmann said. Someone experienced at handling large vehicles might become a driver, and never do anything else. Fire police direct traffic around an emergency scene, another essential support role. To be clear, even specialists must fulfill training requirements and attend a minimum number of calls per year to maintain their membership. Heavy equipment drivers, no matter how experienced, must get tested on each of the seven different fire vehicles before driving them to a call. While unpaid, village firefighters are held to professional standards.
“There’s lots of different jobs,” Wirthmann said.
While the image of the burly fireman wielding his ax is still the stereotype, women are more than welcome to apply, said the chief. “We’ve had many over the years,” he said, and often they “run circles around the guys.”
“Come by and see what we do,” Wirthmann said. “You can’t tell from the news reports. We’re friends outside, but at the snap of a finger,” fire company members become a well-oiled, lifesaving machine.
One thing the new chief cannot say enough about is the strong position he is left in thanks to the tireless efforts of his predecessor, Dave Weeks, who spent 15 years in the top spot and was in one leadership position or another for roughly a quarter of a century. “I learned all I know from him,” Wirthmann said of Weeks, and he’s mindful that this is a “total overhaul” of leadership in the department for the first time in many years. “I’m sad to see it go,” he said.
Weeks has been a member for 34 years, and has expressed no intention to sever those ties. A man of action over words, he has traditionally declined opportunities to speak with members of the press.
“I’m only 35,” Wirthmann said, and despite now having 18 years experience, Weeks has “seen stuff that I haven’t.” Given his depth of experience, Weeks has always been the expert to whom the new chief has turned for advice.
He may be relatively young, but Wirthmann knows how to get this critical job done, and his head is full of the many details required, both the technical ones and those tied to community relations. For example, he’s well aware that although the law allows a fire truck to be driven in excess of the speed limit “with due regard” for safety, but drivers reserve that right for serious emergencies because those massive trucks often appear to be speeding even when they’re not. In fact, a village fire engine with lights and sirens on won’t even be driven past a school bus with flashing lights unless the bus drivers waves the firefighters on.
Looking ahead, the new chief feels he’s been left in a strong position to continue the tradition of professional-level service to the community. All that’s needed is you.