Written by: South Hemptead Fire Department "member"
The South Hempstead Fire Department received its charter in 1905 and organization was completed by August of that year. With no primary headquarters, meetings were held usually at the homes of some of the members. It should be noted that this practice continued until the wives of these gentlemen were being overly inconvenienced. At that point, a local carpenter, Mr. Seaman Chester provided a central meeting place in his workshop for the benefit of the members. These warm surroundings provided the texture and set the stage for business to be conducted.
The first piece of equipment to be used by the South Hempstead Fire Department was a hand-drawn 30 foot hook and ladder. This piece of equipment was housed at the family home of Mr. Maynard Torrington, eventually the second Chief of the department. In order to store the apparatus in this limited sized lean-to (a three sided structure with a roof), the first members went about renovating the hook and ladder, reducing it from 30 feet to 20 feet and replacing the longer ladders with extension ladders.
Much of the information in the early portions of this recollection come from a compilation that was written for the department’s 50 year anniversary. Unfortunately, the document was not signed, so I am unable to recognize the author. But that notwithstanding, I would like to thank the committee that did their homework in 1955 (so I wouldn’t have to)!
As time progressed, additional equipment was obtained and this ushered in the “motorized age.” The original hook and ladder was fitted with a tow bar. In case of an alarm, the hook and ladder was attached to the rear bumper of any members auto for use at the alarm.
By 1922, a reorganization of the department saw the addition of several companies, all of which were housed at the departments headquarters on Linden Avenue in the Village of Hempstead . This incidentally was the only fire house in the entire district. In 1929, the district saw its new headquarters erected on may street, which is presently our headquarters today. This brought the addition of a fifth company, which promptly elected a slate of officers, all of which had a history of leadership in the department and all of whom brought their experience and leadership qualities to the other members in the company.
The department continued to flourish. Then strangely as the business of running Fire Departments goes, the department was annexed by the Village of Hempstead . The Linden Avenue firehouse and property was taken over and the companies disbanded. The issue of fire protection was still uncertain and although the companies were disbanded, the Village of Hempstead appointed ten (10) members from South Hempstead as temporary firemen. Ironically, two of those companies, reliance engine #3 and eagle engine#1 are still in service today, protecting the residents of the Village of Hempstead . In the end, after intense negotiations, the South Hempstead Fire Department was able to hold on to just three (3) pieces of apparatus and $26.00 in cash from the department treasury.
Mankind’s most valued friend, when contained and controlled is fire. When unleashed and out of control, it is his most terrifying enemy. It is because of this that we have banded together as “vamps” a voluntary association for mutual protection against the vagaries and violence of fire. While the helmet and boots are the necessary tools of our vocation, they are not and have never been an “open sesame” to the secrets of complete fire safety. Thus as it happened in 1910 when all of the records of this fledgling Fire Department were destroyed, fire again laid its destructive hand upon us. In February of 1932, our new home, once described as the only public building between the Villages of Rockville Centre and Hempstead was ravaged by a fire that originated in a hose dryer. Once again, all records were lost in this catastrophe. And while the apparatus was saved and used to battle the fire, the fire was well out of control by the time the first hose line was stretched. Despite the best efforts of our members and the assistance of neighboring departments, an inadequate water supply had doomed the fire house to ruins.
It took a great deal of time to recover from such an event. But life goes on and so did the business of the Fire Department. And as things seemed to return to normal, it would be short lived. In February of 1935, the board of fire commissioners had determined that Chief Louis Sichling and second assistant Chief Frank Eckert failed to protect the harmony of the department and by a narrow margin, voted to remove the Chief and second assistant Chief from office. This caused an uprising within the department, with one member actually stripping a fire engine and making off with it! The vehicle was returned a day later, but the issue had now taken root. Most of the older members refused to acknowledge the new Chief , Cornelious Ouwerkerk and the new second assistant Chief, Hildig Hansen. Discord continued and so did the hijinx--with false alarms and police activity going on for weeks. The district then required all of the members to accept new bylaws that empowered the board of fire commissioners to appoint the Chief of department rather than electing one. The members refused to agree to this and were barred from responding to alarms.
This continued until the board of fire commissioners voted in July 1935 to drop 44 members from the membership, cutting the firefighting force in half. This caused people to be concerned about the ability of the Fire Department to provide the services that are promised. Acting Chief Ouwerkerk declared that the district would be covered and the citizens should not worry. But that was not enough to allay the fears of the residents and their disapproval was more than evident. It led to a broader erosion of public support and a retaliatory move by the district to ban local organizations from using the building.
Finally, in September 1935 all 44 members were reinstated. During this time, there were changes in the make-up of the board of fire commissioners. At last, things were seemingly back to normal. It was smooth sailing from there and the district returned to the policy of public access to the building in October 1935.
This further illustrates the need to affirm the separation of the Fire Department from the fire district. This is necessary to prevent operational squabbles from dividing the department as well as the community. While the district is responsible for assuring that funding and equipment is available, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Chief s, officers and members to actually provide the service. With that in mind, the District as well as the Department have both taken great steps to assure both their dependence as well as their independence from each other.
Soon to follow was the idea of providing emergency first aid to the community. At that time, delays were long when assistance was requested and the residents were concerned about the own safety and security. This put the idea of into the heads of some of the members that they could and should also answer calls for medical assistance. Almost immediately, a fund of $600 was established and an ambulance that was previously used by the Meadowbrook hospital was purchased. This vehicle, a 1934 Buick was then staffed by members of the South Hempstead Fire Department who were trained in the latest emergency medical techniques by the American Red Cross. It also carried oxygen, Recitation equipment and the standard first aid equipment, some of which set the benchmarks for equipment that is used today.
The Unthinkable Happens…
On March 7, 1947, tragedy struck the South Hempstead Fire Department as it never had before. While responding to an alarm, ex-Chief Richard Dewling, in his capacity as a warden was directing traffic on long beach road. A car failed to yield and Richard was forced to run out of the car’s path. Unfortunately, Richard ran into the path of a responding fire engine. He was struck by the engine as it roared towards the fire. His injuries were severe and despite the efforts of those that assisted, Richard died from his injuries making him the only member of the South Hempstead Fire Department to be killed in the line of duty. The dedication and devotion that was demonstrated by Chief Richard Dewling are unmatched and are testimony to the inherent risks associated with this type of work.
In appreciation for his supreme sacrifice, we dedicate this page to Ex-Chief Richard Dewling.
As the community grew and time marched on, improved water supplies, alarm systems and communications have the South Hempstead Fire Department a much needed boost in efficiency. The community approved the purchase of two (2) brand new pieces of firefighting equipment. With the increase in equipment, the department moved towards the future. At the same time, the fire district was moving towards a fire district “coup” that would change the dynamics of the fire district forever.
In the early 1950’s, ex-Chief William Johnston had noticed that the area known as Birchwood (just beyond Stratford Road and not quite in the Village of Rockville Centre), was seeking bids for fire protection. Chief Johnston brought this to the attention of the board of fire commissioner’s, who at first resisted the prospects of actually winning the protection rights. Chief William Johnston would not be deterred and his pursuit became his passion. When the fire district finally relented and submitted a bid, miraculously, their bid was accepted! This would provide the South Hempstead Fire District with much needed additional revenue and would increase the South Hempstead Fire Department’s response area. When the South Hempstead Fire Department was first founded, the response area was quite large. Over time, the district was chopped up and subsequently protected by other departments such as Hempstead and West Hempstead . Having the Birchwood area of Rockville Centre was a tremendous shot in the arm for the South Hempstead Fire Department.
Eventually, the area on the east side of Grand Avenue was rapidly developed into an up and coming community. Surely they would need fire protection and Chief Johnston sprang back into action! Assuming that the department would not have much success in purchasing new equipment any time soon, Chief Johnston sought to further increase South Hempstead ’s response area. This would not be as easy as one would think. Chief Johnston went to the new resident’s homes…even as they were moving in and visited with them. He demonstrated the attractiveness of a firehouse so close to their community and even offered the use of the firehouse for community meetings and functions. He invited the new residents to visit the firehouse, an idea that paid off. The new residents then visited with the board of fire commissioners to discuss this idea.
The residents were shown how the closest firehouse in Baldwin was further than that of South Hempstead . When the new community was put out for fire protection bidding, once again South Hempstead was awarded the protection rights. The bidding process was an annual occurrence and South Hempstead always came out on top. Eventually, the Town of Hempstead grew tired of the process and permanently awarded the protection rights for both Baldwin Oaks as well as Birchwood to the South Hempstead Fire District. The attorney for the fire district, Ernst Marshall closely monitored the process and closed the deal legal and final.
This can only demonstrate the persistence and dedication of both Ex-Chief William Johnston as well as the South Hempstead Fire District. It should also be noted that in the mid 1950’s the South Hempstead Fire District proposed consolidating the area north of Demott Avenue, and area held by the Baldwin Fire Department, into the South Hempstead fire district. It also called for the Baldwin Fire Department to provide the necessary equipment for this purpose. The nearest firehouse in Baldwin was located on Baldwin Avenue, 1 block west of Grand Avenue. This proposal was rejected without explanation, and led to the contracting and construction of the firehouse now located on grand Avenue at Rose Blvd.
Following the failed merger, the South Hempstead continued to grow. It was then that the department embarked on a rotation of apparatus. This allowed new engines to be purchased at twenty (20) year intervals. In 1953, the district purchased two (2) GMC fire engines, in 1972, it was two (2) young fire engines and in 1992, two (2) pierce fire engines.
As the years went on, South Hempstead prospered. The community was growing and so was the Fire Department. And as the department grew, so did its complexity. Imagine in this day and age, a fire Chief using the family car to respond to alarms? Where would all of his equipment be kept? But that’s just what they did in South Hempstead until the mid 1960’s. It was during that time that the department purchased a used Chief car from the Uniondale Fire Department. Not long after that, a second car was purchased again from the Uniondale Fire Department. But this car was for use by the Chief only. The first and second assistant Chief ’s did in fact use their own cars, which were equipped with crude radio’s and warning devices, until well into the 1980’s. In the early years the assistant Chief ’s were given s monthly stipend of $10.00 to offset the cost of the use of their personal vehicles.
For some odd reason, the department was always operating at a financial deficit. Bi-annual audits could only uncover two (2) reasons for this: insufficient funds for their needs and inefficient management of their treasury. The inefficient management was not through fraud, but for the lack of a budget on paper. This all changed when Chief Robert Beam wrote the first budget for the South Hempstead Fire Department. This allowed a more accurate accounting of the treasury and thanks to the diligence of Chief Robert Beam, the department has been in the black ever since. Thank you Bobby!
Through the 1970’s, the South Hempstead Fire Department earned a reputation as a department that could always be counted on. Whether it was to assist at a fire or for medical emergencies, our neighbors relied heavily on us. As our call volume increased, the need for advanced life support became evident. With that in mind, several members took it upon themselves to enroll in a course to become advanced emergency medical technicians. This required that these members study topics such as EKG interpretation, medication administration, intravenous therapy and advanced airway management. These dedicated men became the inspiration for many members to follow. With the purchase of the necessary advanced life support equipment, the first AMT’s had all of the tools needed to practice emergency medicine when the community needed it. South Hempstead boasts a fine tradition of providing the most skilled personnel when duty calls. Their selfless actions have even inspired this writer to enter that field and I am proud to have the opportunity to work along side of them.
With the department 75 years old, it was and still is the focal point of the community. Every organization in this community in some way or another utilized the Fire Department, whether it was the manpower or the facilities. The department was always available for assistance, for advice or just a place to go for local functions. This also caused a spike in membership applications and with that an increased need for additional storage space. The department also found the need to provide upgrades and repairs to their present day lounge. In early 1981, the department undertook its first expansion since the building was constructed in 1932. Chief of department at this time was Roger Johnson, one of our most dedicated members who remained Chief for an amazing seven (7) years. With one swing of a hammer, the department expanded the building to include a garage storage area, an area to store and change into their turnout gear and repairs and improvements to the recreation room. Most people take for granted the need for a recreation room. In their opinion, it’s just a place to drink and horse around. But if they could see the difference in the member when they can go there to unwind after a long and busy day, where they can just otherwise relax, those opinions would change in a South Hempstead minute. I know I can speak for all of the members when I day that it’s true. But, back to the business at hand…
I first entered the department in December of 1981. Like everyone before me, I had a desire to help my community. A little more than a month went by when we were alerted to my first working house fire on Maple Avenue. As everyone did, I responded and did my job while the fire was extinguished and confined to an upstairs bedroom. At first I thought “wow! This is what I’m talking about!” This was precisely the reason that I became a member. You need to be a brand new firefighter to know the feeling. It was there and I loved it. It meant being part of a team--a brotherhood, I guess you could say. Oddly enough, it would be 22 months until the next working fire. A huge working fire at the Amoco gas station on Grand Avenue at May Street. This was tremendous fire, tremendous in that along with a fully involved building, several cars were also burning! The heat was so intense that it melted the lights on the side of our engine. But aside from that, the fire was extinguished after a long and arduous fight. With the usual mutual aid policies that are in existence today, ironically, the South Hempstead Fire Department fought that fire alone without any outside help and for that I am extremely proud.
With a district the size of South Hempstead , the likelihood of frequent fires was to say the least slim. With that in mind, South Hempstead devoted a lot of time towards the emergency medical aspect of the department. Having purchased the present ambulance in the mid 1970’s, the district began to explore the feasibility of purchasing a brand new ambulance. With many meetings and discussions, a brand new Horton ambulance was purchased and the old ambulance sold. All of the equipment was upgraded and more members were trained. South Hempstead was at one time able to boast 11 advanced emergency medical technicians—over 25% of the department trained in advanced life support and almost 85% of the total membership was trained in the basic levels of emergency care. We were the envy of all of the departments around us.
We also saw the purchase of two (2) brand new Pierce fire engines. The older vehicles were over 20 years old and had long outlived their usefulness. These three vehicles, all shiny and new would set the stage for what would occur in 1995. The regional EMS council (REMSCO) of Nassau County had bestowed upon the South Hempstead Fire Department the honor of EMS agency of the year. This was due to the known fact that we were reliable as well as the fact that we responded to over 150 requests for mutual aid for the prior year. Honored at the REMSCO dinner, this award set the tone for the continuing level of care provided by the South Hempstead Fire Department that would last even into this day.
This was also a time where the department saw an increase in its membership. Suddenly, the volunteer fire service was exciting, attractive, fulfilling and people enjoyed the camaraderie and togetherness that the firehouse provided. Involvement was at an all-time high, not only in South Hempstead but everywhere. Even the community and just the average citizen made the Fire Department a part of their lives. But that is the inherent nature of South Hempstead . Organizations worked together and sought each others help. Things like the Memorial Day Parade, a night at the races and Sunday morning drills that were done in public helped band the community as it never had before.
Due to the size and configuration of the May Street firehouse, the Board of Fire Commissioners found it necessary to place a cap on the membership. A bad idea, some thought, as there was such a demand for personnel and here we are turning people away. The district as well as the department were doing what they could to help rectify this. It was at that time that the district had approached the community with the idea of purchasing the house and property immediately adjacent to the firehouse that had recently become available. With the support of the community, the property was purchased, the house razed and the firehouse expanded. Coming in ahead of schedule and under budget, the present day South Hempstead Fire Department headquarters is the centerpiece of this community. With the addition of three (3) bays, increased office space and an elevator to make it accessible to everyone, the department took on a luster that we sensed would last forever.
But alas, that was not to be. A question of impropriety within the fire district in 1998 found the entire department reeling and the community asking for answers. But that was also a time where there was a changing of the guard, if you would, within the Board of Fire Commissioners. Several members of the board that had held their positions for many years retired from their positions and yielded their seats on the Board of Fire Commissioners to younger, more dynamic members that continued to carry out the mission that had already been started. To this day, we salute these former commissioners for their hard work over many years and we wish them well.
The turn of the century came and with it came many new challenges. Chief of Department was Steven Morelli and Assistant Chief was Frank Russo. It became their job to help restore that shine to the department. Making new friends, keeping old ones and welcoming everyone into our house was a top priority. Slowly, the department was once again at the top of their game. I know I can speak for Chief Russo when I say that we owe it all to the men and women of our department. It was their hard work and effort that made our return possible.
The Day The World Stood Still
September 11, 2001 seemed like any other day. The weather was crystal clear and the temperature was perfect. It was primary day in New York and everyone seemed to be taking it in stride. Then at 8:46 am without warning, something happened that would change the world. Terrorists had seized control of four (4) commercial airliners and began to attack our country in a way no one in this country had seen since Pearl Harbor. In simultaneous attacks, these planes were flown into the world trade center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The goal of these terrorists was to bring us down to our knees. Crashing into buildings that were filled with innocent people was the epitome of cowardice. But if they were waiting to see us fall, they seriously misjudged us. But that was their mistake. As one of the hijacked airliners was turned towards its target, its passengers fought back--these terrorists had picked the wrong plane. After a valiant fight to regain control of the plane, the terrorists deliberately crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.
In all of this writer’s years, we haven’t seen an attack with such force on American soil. But the worst was yet to come. As people ran for their lives, the men and women of the New York City Fire Department, the New York City police department and the port authority police department raced in. Their mission was clear: to have lives and evacuate the buildings. But the tragedy turned worse and both towers collapsed, severely damaged from the impact and ensuing fires. In all, some 25,000 lives were have through the efforts of those emergency responders. But sadly nearly 3,000 lives were lost.
This put the South Hempstead Fire Department into a different mode. Many rescuers had been killed and the department was relocated to Belmont park for possible deployment to “ground zero,” as it would come to be called. A total of 343 members of the New York City Fire Department, 37 members of the port authority police department and 23 members of the New York City Police Department perished in this disaster. But it was one life that really hit home. Firefighter Joseph Hunter, a member of the South Hempstead Fire Department for 13 years and a member of the FDNY for 5 years was lost in this tragedy, killed while assuring that others would survive. The death of Joseph and that of another resident of South Hempstead , New York City police officer Robert Fazio had sent this community into a freefall. Something needed to be done in a hurry and as always, the South Hempstead Fire Department was there.
Within days of the tragedy, many members of the department made the journey to ground zero to search for their friend and to assist in the rescue effort. While back in town, we opened our house to all. Three days after the tragedy, a prayer service and vigil was held at the South Hempstead Fire Department headquarters. Hundreds of people turned out to mourn the loss of innocent lives and to support the United States of America. As a community, as well as a world, we were angry, we were sad and we felt lost. But as Americans we were solid. We may have stumbled, but we didn’t fall. And as was promised by our president George W. Bush, we began a war on terror that continues in many parts of the world today.
This war on terror would affect the department in a different way. As emergency first responders, we now saw a new era of training and a new line of equipment for the fight against terror. Suddenly, the term on everyone’s lips was “weapons of mass destruction” and our training weighed heavily in that area. But as is always the case, the South Hempstead Fire Department faced those challenges the way it faces them all--head on.
The years following have been sort of run of the mill. But the department is always on the task of improving the services that we provide. With that in mind, almost simultaneously, the district purchased a 2nd full use ambulance to meet the needs of our community and we also purchased a combination engine/aerial ladder. These two (2) pieces of equipment will assure the community of top quality fire and emergency medical services for years to come. Life goes on in this beautiful hamlet, as it will long after we’re gone.
As our celebration draws to a close, I need to express my gratitude for the opportunity to write this narrative. It has been a wonderful experience and it has given me the answers to a lot of questions that I have had about the department and the past 100 years. Can I say that I included everything? Not a chance. Every story leads to two more stories and the history is endless. All I can say is that it has been my pleasure and my privilege to do this.
With the next 100 years about to begin, we can look back with pride and look ahead with great anticipation. Will they be just as exciting and interesting? We can only hope so. Everyday brings another line in the history books and I can only envy the person that will be doing this in the year 2105.
To belong to the South Hempstead Fire Department is an honor. To have the opportunity to work along side of these fine men and women is a privilege. To have served the community of South Hempstead is a pleasure, one we wouldn’t trade for anything.