Joining the Riverhead Fire Department was Bill Sanok’s way of putting down roots.
Mr. Sanok, then 28, arrived on the East End in 1968 after serving in the military and bouncing between jobs with Cornell Cooperative Extension in the Finger Lakes and Nassau County.
“I figured I’ve got to settle down and do something with people outside of my job,” he said Monday.
Last week, the department honored Mr. Sanok at the firehouse for 50 years of service.
For his dedication to the fire department and additional community involvement as a member of the Riverhead Rotary and Gift of Life organization, Mr. Sanok received several proclamations last Tuesday from Riverhead Town, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York.
He was joined by his wife, Maureen, their daughter and two grandchildren during the ceremony.
(It’s not the only milestone he’s celebrating. Next June, he and Maureen will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.)
Mr. Sanok credits members of the department and his family for their support.
“When you first join an organization, you have no idea,” where you’ll fit in, he said. “But when you like the people, it makes the job so much easier.”
He also recognizes that it must not have always been easy on his wife.
“It’s a sacrifice for the whole family,” he said.
Though they live in Mattituck now, Mr. Sanok says he feels a loyalty to the Riverhead Fire Department.
A native of Goshen, N.Y., Mr. Sanok grew up on a family farm that he intended to return to. Curiously, a muck fire on the farm would sidetrack those plans. “When I was in the service, we had a dry year and a lot of the muck soil caught on fire,” he said. The fire left the farmland unusable, so he took what he thought would be a “temporary” job with Cornell Cooperative Extension.
In Riverhead, life came together.
“It was a good fit for me,” he said, drawing similarities between Riverhead and the farming community where he grew up, also composed largely of Polish immigrants.
Mr. Sanok, now 78, served as a first-responder until he turned 68 and is still involved with the department’s fire and police patrol company and as its public information officer, a position created in the wake of 9/11.
“One of the things we realized was that you have to keep the media involved,” Mr. Sanok said. He was chosen for the job because he felt comfortable with the media, often speaking to reporters on behalf of Cornell before he retired in 2003.
Plus, he said, fire chiefs get busy. “He doesn’t have time, and the last one he wants to talk to is someone outside of fire service,” Mr. Sanok said.
Ever since, Mr. Sanok has been a go-to source for reporters on the scene.
“I enjoy talking to reporters. I learned early on that [reporters] want to do a good job. Most of them don’t want to stir up the pot. They do want to do a good job, they want their readers to get something that’s honest, that they can defend,” he said.
Through FEMA, Mr. Sanok received PIO training that covers the importance of communicating during and after an incident and how to brief news outlets effectively. With a training session coming up in October, he’s hoping to get some younger members interested in PIO.
“I tell them, you can’t jump at guesses” when talking to reporters, he said.
Ex-chief Kevin Brooks worked alongside Mr. Sanok in his eight years moving up the ranks. “It’s always great working with Bill,” he said, despite disagreements. “We can sit in here and argue and argue and argue, but when the whistle blows, it’s not about us anymore. It’s about the people we’re helping.”
Two events stand out most to Mr. Sanok over a 50-year career with the fire department. The first is the massive 1995 Sunrise Fire. “I still remember the day. I knew we were going to be busy,” he said, recalling chasing the fires in the August heat.
The second happened just last year, while he was teaching a fire safety course at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School. He was teaching fourth-graders how to react in emergency situations and shared the story of a young girl whose 911 call in 2015 helped save a life after a fire broke out in a first-floor apartment on Middle Road in Riverhead.
That girl, Jenifer Ponce, was a student in the classroom.
“She called in and reported the fire just the way we teach it,” Mr. Sanok said.
Jenifer was later honored by the fire department for her heroic act.
“It’s satisfying when people appreciate what you do,” Mr. Sanok said. “Those little things mean so much.”
Photo caption: Bill Sanok has served for 50 years in the Riverhead Fire Department. (Tara Smith photo)