The Mount Sinai Fire Department is among the long list of firehouses on Long Island that has seen a shortage of volunteers in recent years. But the hardworking residents who respond to calls at 3 a.m. wearing MSFD jackets have more than enough burning passion to make up for it.
The department, at 746 Mount Sinai-Coram Road, held an open house April 29 as part of RecruitNY’s federally funded, statewide annual drive designed to help districts recruit volunteer firefighters — anyone 18 or older who wants to serve their community.
While there are still more than twice as many volunteers as career firefighters in the U.S., there’s been a sharp decline.
In Suffolk County, especially, there’s been a drop largely because it’s so expensive to live here, according to Mount Sinai First Assistant Chief Nicholas Beckman.
He added that while the department in the past usually averaged three to four volunteers a year, only one joined in 2016, and there have been no takers yet this year, although a young woman in her early 20s stopped by Sunday to get information and ask questions about the training required of a volunteer.
Beckman decided it was time to take advantage of RecruitNY’s services and get the word out.
“I’ll be happy if we get at least one,” Beckman said, adding the department has an agreement with neighboring fire districts, like Miller Place, to help one another when needed.
“Every district around here is struggling and a lot of people are working two jobs and just don’t have the time to make the full commitment,” he said. “It’s hard to juggle personal life, work life and putting in the time here. But without volunteers, there will be no one to get on the trucks.”
Beckman has served 19 years in the department and has been an “honorary member” since he was 9 years old, as the son of the former chief. He said although the training and job itself is tough, there’s nothing more rewarding.
“It’s like a second family when you join here,” he said. “I can always call on the others if I need something, even outside of the firehouse.”
Walter Wilson, 77, a former utilities manager at Stony Brook University and volunteer who came out of retirement to join the firehouse after serving the Yaphank Fire Department for 26 years, said once a fireman, always a fireman.
“I had taken about a 10-year break [between Yaphank and Mount Sinai] and retired, but every time a siren went off in the neighborhood, my wife would say to me, ‘you’re like a dog on a porch, getting ready to go chase cars,’” said Wilson, who serves as captain of the fire police controlling traffic. “But it’s great. I got back in, and I love it.”
Adam Thomas, an 11-year volunteer who works full-time as an emergency vehicle technician, said he grew up down the block from the firehouse.
“Just being able to step up and do something and help people is great,” he said. “We’re a close-knit family here, we get along and work together to get something accomplished.”
In January, Thomas and another volunteer rescued two duck hunters adrift in 32-degree waters after their boat capsized in Mount Sinai Harbor.
Janis Henderson, 70, a full-time nurse who joined the department in 1974 and made history three years later as the first female recipient of the Firefighter of the Year award — modified for the first time from Fireman of the Year — said she hopes to empower more women to join.
“It’s a wide open thing now and I want them to know they can do anything they want to,” Henderson said. “When I joined, I never found anything I couldn’t do. I never said ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘this is too heavy.’ I love the job and love to get dirty.”
Henderson even suffered serious burns to her hands during an oil tank fire in her early days, because she didn’t want to say anything when her fellow firefighters pushed her too close to the flames while she was holding the nozzle. She said she feels at home in this line of work.
“It’s like I inherited 70 brothers — this is my family,” she said. “We take care of each other, and I know they’re always there for me.”
Mount Sinai Fire Chief Jaime Baldassare, who started as a volunteer at the Dix Hills Fire Department when he was 19, said he’s still at it because he feels the need to help.
“There’s nothing quite like when you pull someone out of a fire or out of a wrecked car and you find out the next day that they made it,” he said. “It’s a feeling you can’t describe. I love to do this. We train to be the best we can be so anytime a call comes in, we’re ready to do whatever it takes to help the people of Mount Sinai.”
To volunteer, visit the Mount Sinai Fire Department at 746 Mount Sinai-Coram Road or call 631-473-2418.