New Paltz Fire Department prepares for move uptown

New Paltz Fire Department Chief Cory Wirthmann and Palumbo Group Site Superintendent Ryan Bennett on the construction site of the new fire department building on North Putt Corners Road. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Village of New Paltz Fire Department (NPFD) is eagerly awaiting the completion of its new firehouse, currently under construction at the corner of North Putt Corners Road and Henry W. DuBois Drive, where Fire Station 2 used to sit. Fire chief Cory Wirthmann walked Hudson Valley One through the NPFD’s cramped quarters in the brick municipal building on Plattekill Avenue that has served as its stationhouse since it opened in July of 1950.

Wirthmann, a fifth-generation fireman, gestured to the three-door bay, which has to hold four firetrucks. “This has been an issue for the past 60 to 70 years,” said the chief. “We have three doors and four trucks, and it’s some operation just to get them in and out of here without scraping them up!” He notes that each firetruck is worth approximately $1 million, hence the great caution they take in getting them backed into the bay, despite it being like a Rubik’s Cube exercise.

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The NPFD ladder truck has less than a foot before the door closes on it. Along with the four 80-foot-long trucks in a three-space garage, the building also must provide storage for equipment, fuel lines, tools, a cleaning station for hazardous materials, a washer, dryer and “changing room” – the latter being just a bunch of pegs with all of their fire gear and helmets hanging from a cement wall that is right up against one of the trucks. “You know how many times our guys have gotten smacked by that door when they were getting their gear on to go on a call?”

The chief points to a tiny room that sits next to the front door and says, “I share this office with about six different people. We’ve just outgrown this place, and we need to give our volunteers the space and privacy anyone would require to do what they do for this community for free. We’re not building anything luxurious; we’re building a working firehouse.” They’re looking to move from a 4,400-square-foot space to a 16,000-square-foot space that can hold all 7 of their trucks, ATVs, boat, Jaws of Life, offices, training room and common space. “Basically, as a volunteer, I oversee more than $7 million worth of taxpayers’ equipment, and I want to make sure it is properly cared for – as well as the priceless lives of our volunteers.”

The cost for the project, according to the chief, is upwards of $7 million. “We won’t know until it’s all completed, and with all of the supply-chain issues and COVID-related hurdles, it’s been amazing how fast this building has come together; but we’re probably looking at late spring of 2022.” He said that the building is being funded predominantly through a federal grant that was filtered down through the state to the Town and Village. “When we hit $5.5 million, then the Village will have to go out to bond for the rest. But this is a one-time deal. We’re not going be building another firehouse for at least a hundred years!”

The Fire Department has a chief, two assistant chiefs, one captain and two lieutenants. They have approximately 20 firefighters – all of whom, from the chief to the rank-and-file, are 100 percent volunteer and answer upwards of 650 calls per year. “If those numbers don’t scare you, they should,” said Wirthmann, who said his hope was that the new fire station would attract more volunteers, especially from the younger generation.

“All you need to do is show up,” he said, “and be willing to learn and willing to work. If you can hand me a trash bag when we’re cleaning up a car wreck, then you’ve started your training!” Although there are a plethora of required courses and trainings and tests that are conducted by the state for volunteer firefighters, Wirthmann said that they’ve been trying to do more in-house trainings to ease the burden on their volunteers. “The county recently built a training facility that we can use,” to practice structural and car firefighting, said the chief. Typically, the NPFD does a lot of its training on the property where the new firehouse is being built.

Although there was a quick downturn due to the COVID-19 “shelter in place” edict, Wirthmann said that calls picked up after a few months and then started to rise. “With everyone being home, we were getting a ton of calls,” he said.

The greatest percentage of their calls are weather-related: storms, wires and limbs down, floods, cars floating away on the Flats. They also have to make sure that they have a truck and firefighters west of the Wallkill in case of flooding or snow when there’s a storm warning. The NPFD also respond to SUNY New Paltz and a 20-mile portion of the New York State Thruway, as well as the Town and Village and neighboring municipalities.

As the chief talks, he keeps excusing himself when dispatch is going over the radio. “I’m always listening,” says Wirthmann as the radio crackles behind us. “We have pagers if we need to respond to a call here, but the radio will let us know if a neighboring town has a call that requires assistance. We all help each other out.”

The NPFD responds to structure fires, house fires and forest fires as well as vehicular accidents. Asked what were some of the more challenging calls he’s been on recently, Wirthmann pointed to the forest fire that took place on the Mohonk Preserve property, behind Cragswood Road in the Town of New Paltz. “That was difficult because it’s not something we normally do, and with forest fires you can’t always see them or reach them, and they’re moving constantly.” This one started from lightning striking a tree. “It literally exploded the tree and then jumped trees,” said the chief. “We could see that afterwards.” In reference to a recent house fire on Springtown Road, he said, “Whenever there’s a lot of fire, it’s stressful. We ended up saving the house, but it took a lot to get that fire out.”

Some of the most difficult calls to deal with, almost any firefighter will say, are the ones where there are fatalities. “We do a lot of car accidents, and utilize the Jaws of Life,” a device that pulls crushed metal apart. “There’s times when we’re literally cutting people out of a car. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of damage and blood and sometimes death. These are the calls where I talk to the guys and see if they want to talk with someone, check in on them, because these are not the types of calls you go home and talk about.”

Besides being a dad of a newborn and a toddler, Wirthmann is also the Village building inspector, so he’s often in the municipal building, as it houses all Village government offices and used to be home to the Police Department and the Justice Courts. Both of those departments have since moved to a newly renovated warehouse-turned-police-and-justice-headquarters on North Putt Corners Road, right next to the soon-to-be fire station, with the New Paltz Rescue Squad just a stone’s throw down the road.

Like NPPD chief Robert Lucchesi, Wirthmann is happy that all of their emergency responders will be located close together. “Like me, Rob was born and raised here, and we both know New Paltz,” said Wirthmann. “We all work so well together. Our firehouse could be used as an emergency operations center, or if the National Guard had to come in, but it is not a shelter. That has to be operated by the Red Cross, and our fire station [the one under construction] looks bigger than it is because of the truck bays. It’s only one floor.”

The history of the fire pole

The firefighters will have a kitchen, a changing room, a meeting room and a ping-pong table, but they will not have a firepole. “We went looking for the original firepole, which was located where Krauss’ Chocolate is now,” said the chief, talking about the old flatiron building on the corner of Church and Main Streets where Ulster Hook and Ladder Company #1 once operated. Like many fire departments at that time (circa 1890), the horses would be on the main floor with the fire carriages close by; the firefighters would often sleep on the second floor and the hay for the horses was stored on the third floor. Wirthmann said that they searched in vain for the firepole to add to their collection of New Paltz’s firefighting history, dating back to 1869, but could not find it.

According to the Smithsonian Magazine and The New York Times, it was David Kenyon, a Chicago fireman of Engine Company 21 – an all-black fire company – who first invented, albeit accidentally, the traditional firepole that was used for decades afterwards: www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/fire-poles-saved-time-they-also-injured-firefighters-180962923. According to Zachary Crockett, writing for Gizmodo, Kenyon, a captain, was “helping a fellow marshal stack hay on the third floor of the firehouse when an alarm rang. In the loft was a long binding pole used to secure hay during transport; without a quick route of descent, Kenyon’s accomplice grabbed the pole and slid two stories down, easily beating out the dozens of firemen scrambling down the spiral staircase.”

The next week, Kenyon was able to convince the fire authorities to install a firepole out of Georgia pine. When Company 21’s reputation escalated as the fastest company on the scene of a fire, the idea caught on. A few years later, Boston approved brass poles for its firehouses. The tradition persisted until the early to mid-2000s, when accidents and injuries caused by the pole-riding custom halted building approvals and site inspections around the country. Although Wirthmann could technically approve a firepole as the Village building inspector, the chief said that with just one floor, it just didn’t seem to be worth the gamble.

He is excited, as are the other firefighters, about having a trophy case and display area where they can show off the equipment and relics of their brave firefighting history in New Paltz. “Firefighters are proud people. We are highly skilled adrenaline junkies that care about our community. And if you know a firefighter, you know that they’ll be proudly wearing their NPFD shirts or sweatshirts. As the chief, I want a place where firefighters feel like firefighters. They deserve it.”