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Riverhead firefighter has seen many changes in 50 years with Reliable Hose & Engine Company No. 1

It was in a brush truck where Ray Atkins had his brush with serious injury.

A firefighter’s work is inherently dangerous, as Mr. Atkins can readily attest. He a close call he once had while driving a Riverhead Fire Department brush truck through woods near an outdoor fire. He was grateful at the time for two things: 1) he saw what was headed his way, and 2) the truck he was driving didn’t have seat belts.

With with an officer seated in the passenger seat, Mr. Atkins purposefully hit a dead maple tree to clear the way. What he hadn’t counted on, however, was a big branch breaking off and swinging toward him. In a split second, Mr. Atkins leaped onto the lap of the surprised officer sitting alongside him, just before the branch crashed through the front windshield where he had been sitting and blew through the back window, which had a metal grating.

“I’m sitting on the guy’s lap and he goes, ‘Damn, you’re fast!’ ” said Mr. Atkins.

Had he not seen the branch swinging his way — or had not been able to move to avoid it — it would not have been a good outcome.

Thankfully, Mr. Atkins, 74, survived the scare and today is able to celebrate his 50th anniversary with Reliable Hose & Engine Company No. 1. It was exactly a half-century ago, on June 23, 1972, that he joined the Riverhead Fire Department as a 25-year-old, following in the footsteps of his father, Crawford, who had joined the department a year earlier.

What’s his reaction to the 50th year anniversary?

“Every year I just kept going,” he answered simply.

Mr. Atkins has held numerous positions in the fire department and Riverhead Firefighters Association. He had been a captain, first lieutenant, secretary and treasurer for Reliable Hose. He was a first vice president and sergeant at arms for the Riverhead Firefighters Association. From 1972 to 1985 he was a member of the department’s Ironmen racing team. Nowadays, Mr. Atkins, who suffered a heart attack in September, directs traffic for the department.

Born in Greenport, he is a lifelong Riverhead resident. Within two weeks of receiving his diploma from Farmingdale Technical College in 1967, he had a job as a technician at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he remained for over 44 years.

Mr. Atkins remembers reporting for his first day as a Riverhead firefighter with almost shoulder-length hair — and the reaction of a first assistant chief chomping on a cigar upon seeing him. “After he saw me with my hair close to my shoulders, he almost choked on it,” said Mr. Atkins.

That day Mr. Atkins was given a uniform that “didn’t fit that great.” His first fire was less than a week later. A rowboat was ablaze at a golf course. “One guy took the hose off, they sprayed the boat out and then we left. That was it,” he said.

Not very dramatic.

But Mr. Atkins recalled other calls he answered, such as the time during Hurricane Sandy when he rolled over a brush truck while avoiding a fallen tree and another occasion when he and another firefighter rescued seven puppies from a house fire.

An engine from Reliable Hose & Engine Co. 1 pictured in 2018. (file photo)

Mr. Atkins has seen much change in the fire department over the past 50 years, particularly the development of sophisticated pumper trucks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that carry over a thousand gallons of water and the bunker gear firefighters wear. Modern firefighters also have many more rules and regulations to follow than their predecessors did half a century ago.

Asked about the “hell-raisers,” as some firefighters of yesteryear were described, Mr. Atkins said: “I was one of them. I told all the young guys … I said, ‘You know what? If you pulled the crap that my friends and I did, you’d be out the door.’ ”

Mr. Atkins was honored for his 50 years of service June 14 at a dinner hosted by Reliable Hose at the fire department’s headquarters. Among those in attendance were Riverhead Fire District commissioners, Riverhead Fire Department chiefs, the Suffolk County Volunteer Firemen’s Association, Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski and Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar.

Mr. Atkins, accompanied at that dinner by his wife of 45 years, Donna Mae, was given accolades and gifts.

“He’s not an interior firefighter any more, but he’s always at the firehouse,” said Reliable Hose Capt. William Sproston, who estimated his company has about 15 to 17 members with 50-plus years of service. “He has a love for the fire department.”

It has been a good run for Mr. Atkins, and it continues.

“I don’t think I’ll make the next 50 because I’ll be 125,” he said. “If I do make it, I won’t even know what the hell is going on.”