New recruits joining RFD fire police after ‘fix’

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Fire Police Patrol 2nd Lt. Justin Winter, Jr. redirects traffic outside the scene of a kitchen fire this fall.
PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Fire Police Patrol 2nd Lt. Justin Winter, Jr. redirects traffic outside the scene of a kitchen fire this fall.

As fire trucks rushed into the parking lot of a Riverhead apartment building, volunteer firefighter Paul Sparrow stood along a stretch of Roanoke Avenue, halting vehicles with a glowing traffic baton to allow the engines through.

“Everybody likes the flashy jobs … but we try to bring a little order to the fire scenes,” said Mr. Sparrow, a 40-year Riverhead Fire Department vet.

While Mr. Sparrow and fellow members of the Fire Police Patrol Company might not undertake the most glorious of assignments at fire scenes, members of the department’s smallest company play a key role for their comrades. They not only keep the scenes safe, but also check other firefighters for signs of fatigue, provide support for the chiefs and use their years of experience to watch the progression of a fire for any signs of trouble.

For years, however, the Fire Police Patrol has seen fewer new volunteers, attributed in part to an aging population both in town and within the company.

In an effort to boost the company’s sagging membership, the department recently changed its rules for the first time in decades, allowing additional qualified members — including those not physically capable of interior firefighting — to apply to join the company.

So far, fire officials say, it’s working.

“Up until two years ago, our numbers were going down,” said Fire Police Patrol Captain Baycan Fideli. “This [change] will give us an enhancement.”

The Fire Police Patrol was founded in February 1922 and absorbed the Merchant Hose Company into its ranks a year later. While many other departments use varying members of their ranks to fill out fire police units, Riverhead’s is a distinct company with a distinguished history that includes several “Firefighter of the Year” honors.

“We’re unique on Long Island,” said Mr. Fideli, a nine-year veteran of the department and the company.

In the company’s earliest years, Fire Police Patrol members would join their fellow volunteers in fighting fires.

“Fire Police were on the hose just as much as anybody else,” said ex-captain and longtime Fire Police Patrol member Jim Creighton.

Mr. Creighton, still an active member after 51 years, said fires burned for longer decades ago because of inferior fire-prevention technology.

“Many calls went on for six hours,” he said. Fire police would join rotations to man the hoses to give other volunteers a break, he said.

Today, Fire Police Patrol volunteers serve as the logistical backbone at a fire scene. They man the perimeter, keeping the general public away from potentially dangerous areas and preventing vehicles from injuring volunteers.

It’s something the chiefs know they can count on.

“They hit the ground running,” said first assistant fire chief Kevin Brooks. “If you’re going to a working structure fire and the chief has to worry about who’s going to do traffic, you’re so far behind the eight ball you don’t stand a chance.”

Though members of other Riverhead companies are also getting older, those volunteers often wish to stay within their own units and don’t transition to the Fire Police, fire officials said.

While most companies in the department have a minimum of 30 members, and some are maxed out at 35, Fire Police Patrol has just 15 members in its ranks, Mr. Brooks said.

Part of the problem comes from the requirements to join the fire department. All volunteers, fire police or not, are required to be certified as “Class A” firefighters by state standards. Prospective firefighters must take a lung capacity test to see if they’re qualified to work the interiors of fire scenes.

But that requirement has hampered recruiting for the Fire Police Patrol. While some members still do interior firefighting work, the majority of the company’s responsibilities could be completed by someone without interior certification.

Two years ago, the chiefs met with members of the fire police to brainstorm solutions. After working on a deal, the district’s board of fire commissioners signed off on an unprecedented change last month.

Fire Police Patrol now accepts “Class B” firefighters — who don’t need to be certified to work interiors or take a lung capacity test — into its ranks. These firefighters will be given a more limited set of responsibilities but can still contribute to the department, Mr. Brooks said.

“We’re trying to bolster their membership with productive people,” he said. “Even with the change, you’re going to be a jack of most trades.”

Members looking to join other companies are still required to be “Class A” certified.

Fire officials say they’re hoping to tap into a demographic of experienced retired firefighters who still want to serve their communities.

The change has already paid off. Four new member have been accepted into the company and two more applicants are waiting to be vetted, officials said.

“We know there are people qualified to take care of the perimeter, to take care of the scene, to be watching for safety,” Mr. Fideli said. “This is huge.”

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Responsibilities of the Fire Police Patrol

• Direct traffic and secure the scene of an emergency. Fire police are also tasked with providing first aid if needed.

• Undergo training to become certified state Peace Officers. Fire police have limited, police-like powers at the scene of an emergency and can exercise those powers to keep areas under control.

• Manage the department’s command vehicle, a 36-foot truck worth nearly $500,000 that includes a medical galley, extendable floodlights, an Internet connection, space to transport more than a dozen firefighters and even a bathroom. The command truck is used as a base of operations for larger incidents.

• Change air canisters for interior firefighters and check volunteers for signs of injury or fatigue.