Nyack Sketch Log: 150 Years of Volunteer Fire Fighting

by Bill Batson

When a violent explosion rocked Nyack College on June 4, the volunteers of the Nyack Fire Department rushed to secure the scene. The Department’s Marine Unit was the first to reach the wreckage of the fatal Hudson River boat crash on July 26. This October, the village will have an opportunity to express our gratitude for a volunteer Fire Department that has been serving the public for 150 years.

Rockland is the last county in New York State to have a 100% volunteer fire department and Nyack’s Fire Department is the oldest in the county. Most people would need to be coerced or conscripted into risking their lives or require compensation to leave their jobs and families every time the distinctive fire alarm trumpets.

“When a member of our department shows up at your home at 2a to fight a fire, they got out of a warm bed to get there,” said Nyack Fire Joint District Chairman Keith Taylor. “Some people think we are paid to perform that service.”

Firefighters help hotshots

Volunteer firefighter Mike Packes led the” Hotshot” drive

Fire fighters are sometimes summoned to make the ultimate sacrifice. Members of Nyack’s Jackson Hose Co. No. 3 recently held a fundraiser for the 19 members of the Arizona “Granite Mountain Hotshots,” who died fighting a wildfire on June 30.

Taylor would also like the public to know that the Fire Commission protects your tax dollar as well as your home. “For the last five years, our budget has decreased or stayed the same from year to year.” The approved budget for the Nyack Joint Fire Department District shrank from $1,719,945 in 2012 to $1,644,100 in 2013.

While the budget of the department is stable, the future of the volunteer service is at risk because fewer people are stepping forward to serve. Only two graduates from the 2012 class from the Rockland Country Fire Training Center joined the Nyack Department. Currently the Nyack Fire department has 128 qualified volunteers. 

Starting young seems to be the secret to the longevity of a volunteer. Nyack Fire District Chairman Keith Taylor and Ex-Chief Jim Petriello both started volunteering in their teens and have a combined 70 years of service.

But no can match Everett  “Smokey” Wannamaker’s 69 year shift as a volunteer that started in 1944 when he was 16 years old. This October is also the 150th anniversary of the  Empire Co. in Upper Nyack where generations of Wannamakers have served.

Echoes of the fire department reverberate in my family’s history. When I was a child, I marveled at how my father could decipher the sonic dots and dashes of the village’s iconic air-horn alarm and announce the location of the emergency. I still have to rely on the code-key printed on the back of the calendars that are distributed by the Fire Department during the second week of October each year. Every household in the village gets a calendar, a tradition that goes back to 1927.

bb_nsl47_Jackson Ave Co._historic photo The debate about the fire whistles is almost as old as the department itself. In the 19th century, alarms were raised by ringing a massive bell that once stood in front of the Mazeppa Fire House on Main Street. When the bell was finally retired to the tower of the north campus of  Nyack College, a device known as the Mocking Bird took its place until steam power became obsolete. The current electronic whistle initially repeated the fire signal four times, but after opposition from neighbors adjacent to the firehouse, the number was reduced by two.

Engine Company Founding dates

  • Orangetown Engine Co., No. 1 Established 1834
  • Mazeppa Engine Co., No.2 Established 1852
  • Empire Hook & Ladder Co., No. 1 Established 1863
  • Jackson Fire Engine Co., No. 3 Established 1867
  • Jackson Hose Co., Established 1880
  • Chelsea Hook & Ladder Co., No. 2 Established 1891
  • Highland Hose Co., Established 1895
  • Nyack Fire Patrol, Inc.Established 1915

The Department also maintains a Marine Unit that is docked at the Hook Mountain Yacht Club and a High Angle Unit housed at Central Station to rescue distressed hikers from Hook Mountain.

In an era of increasing reliance on wireless communication, some have predicted the demise of the fire whistle. But recent natural disasters have demonstrated that our dependence on complex electronic systems can leave us vulnerable. During blackouts, landlines, mobile phone and Internet services are useless. In a prolonged power outage, a generator powered air whistle may be the only reliable means to communicate with our volunteer first responders.

As plans are being shaped to honor the department on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, there needs to be a public discussion about how to preserve the tradition of volunteer fire fighting. Without volunteers, the cost of running the Fire Department would be alarmingly higher. So next time you see a fire truck racing to an emergency, you can thank the volunteers for not only safeguarding your private property, but the public purse as well.

If you want to become a volunteer or make a contribution to the Nyack Fire Department contact: (845) 358-5454.

Nyack Fire Department 150th Anniversary Events

  • The 150th Anniversary parade is on Oct. 5. The commemorative procession begins at 2p starting on North Midland Avenue, traveling to Main Street, then heading south on Broadway. There will 32 fire departments participating in the parade.
  • Empire Hook and Ladder Co. No 1 on North Broadway in Upper Nyack will host the 150th Anniversary Parade Trophy Award Ceremony at 7, Oct. 5.
  • Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 6 to 12.
  • In honor of the department’s 150th Anniversary and to coincide with Fire Prevention Month, Brian Duddy will display his collection of Nyack Fire Department Memorabilia, some dating to the 1860’s, in the Nyack Library for the month of October.

Everett  “Smokey” Wannamaker’s oral history was produced by Hudson River Valley Heritage.

Special thanks to Brian Jennings and Bill Demarest

Portions of this log and the sketch were originally published on July 3, 2012

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “150 Years of Volunteer Fire Fighting“ © 2013 Bill Batson

The Nyack Sketch Log is sponsored by The Corner Frame Shop at 40 South Franklin Street in Nyack, NY.


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