On Sept. 8, 1869, the Warwick Valley Fire Engine Company came into existence with 49 members dedicated to protecting the approximately 5,700 residents of Warwick.
Much has changed over the past 150 years. The Warwick Fire Department now has four companies throughout the fire district – Excelsior Hose Company No. 1, Goodwill Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, Raymond Hose Company and Engine 3 “Yellowbirds” – protecting approximately 31,000 residents. There are about 120 members of the fire department, with approximately 80 active members.
What hasn’t changed is the dedication and service to the community.
A brief history
The Excelsior Hose Company was the first of the companies in the Warwick Fire Department in 1869. Twenty years later, the Goodwill Hook and Ladder Company was formed in 1889.
The fire house for Excelsior was located on High Street, near the corner of South Street. Goodwill Hook and Ladder Company was originally housed in the Village Hall on Main Street.
Raymond Hose Company formed in December 1896 and was located on Howe Street.
In April 1967, Engine 3 became the fourth company in Warwick Fire Department. It was located on South Street Extension.
‘We’re like a family’
Mike Contaxis is the 2nd assistant fire chief for the department. He has been a member since 1996 when he was just 16 years old. His dad set the stage, being a firefighter himself.
“I grew up a scout and my dad was a firefighter,” said Contaxis, who grew up on Barbara Drive. “I learned in the scouts to give back to your community so I joined when I was 16. It was one of the greatest things ever. You gain so many relationships. We’re like a family.”
A hard-working, dedicated family.
Training to become a volunteer firefighter is not a walk in the park. To become an exterior firefighter, one is required to take 79 hours of training. To be qualified as an interior firefighter – those who actually enter a burning building – 42 additional hours of training are needed. There is also specialized training on how to handle hazardous materials. And that’s not including the monthly drills.
In addition to interior and exterior firefighters, there are drivers and fire police who round out the rolls.
To qualify to be an officer, there is additional training required.
Lifetimes of service
One August night, the fire department’s Historical Committee met at the fire house on Church Street that houses the Excelsior and Goodwill companies. There were six members present with a total of 222 years of combined service and experience to the Warwick community.
On this committee are some seasoned firefighters – one with 62 years of service – and a relative newcomer with four years under her belt.
Frank Fotino has been a member of the fire department for 60 years.
“The fire department is based on history and tradition,” said Fotino, a former chief. “That’s why we tell the young guys who come in to look at the trophy cases to get an idea of what happened up to this point, to get an idea of the history of the company.”
Marianne Petersen has four years of service with the department. She said it is important to gather the history of the department – artifacts and information - so that future generations know where they came from. She has sent out a questionnaire to current and former members in an effort to gather any information to help round out the historical record.
“Anyone with older memorabilia, documents, photos, uniforms, we would love to add them to our collection,” said Petersen.
It’s Duane “Buzz” Jozlyn, though, who has been around the longest. He is currently the longest active member with 62 years on the department and is a member of the Historical Committee. He and Brian Wood, a 48-year veteran, agree that much has changed since they joined the department.
From hose carts to telephone apps
Back in 1869, firefighters were pulling the company’s hose cart throughout the village. The result wasn’t always good since response times were pretty slow. Horses were used to pull the apparatus until 1916 when the department bought its first motorized vehicle.
“The only thing that puts a fire out in a hurry is quickness,” said Fotino. “You’ve got to get there quick.”
Before technology, notifying firefighters wasn’t particularly efficient.
“In the late 70s, we started getting pagers to carry instead of being alerted by a central alarm,” said Wood. “Now there’s an app we have on our phones.”
Tom Gove, a 30-year member, helped form the Historical Committee. Gove said a big difference in firefighting over the years is how much more toxic materials are now than they were in the past.
“We also do water rescues,” added Barry O’Neill, an 18-year member. Just two weeks ago, the fire department was called to Wickham Lake as a small plane went down. The occupants did get out safely.
Equipment has evolved tremendously. Now, each firefighter is equipped with an air pack. They put on their mask and can do “a good 20 minutes’ worth of work,” according to Fotino.
So far, the fire department has been dispatched nearly 300 times this year. In addition to fighting fires in town, they are called to help out surrounding towns.
There is a fire prevention team that goes to schools throughout the year to teach children about fire safety.
There is also a level of friendly competition between the companies. Fotino said they all try to get to the site of the fire first. But that just benefits the community.
What hasn’t gotten better with time is the number of volunteers. The group is in need of more.
“Back in the day, there was a waiting list to get into the department,” said O’Neill. “You really had to be squared away and have a good reputation in the village to get on. People don’t realize we’re a volunteer department.”
They do recruit through the high school for junior members, advertise in the local newspapers and on social media. They host an open house and in April participate in the Recruit NY day. With so many commuters living in town, it’s hard to get people. They welcome men and women who are interested in learning about firefighting and helping their community.
“We need hard workers," said Wood. “If you can get five years out of someone, that’s good.”
“This group here is over achieving,” he added with a chuckle.
Fotino said the worst fire he was involved with was the one at the lumber yard on Kings Highway just a few years ago. “It burned for more than 20 hours,” he said.
Jozlyn said there were many dairy barns that burned years ago because there were no smoke detectors. Also, he recalled, in the late 1960s there was an arsonist who was setting fires to barns every other Thursday night. That, he recalls, because he bowled on Thursdays and was called out several times.
The Borderland Farm fire was devastating a dozen years ago because of a life lost.
This group is indeed looking forward to celebrating its 150th anniversary with the community, highlighted with the parade on Sept. 28. They are inviting local merchants to decorate their windows as part of the celebration and have even gotten Newhard’s The Home Source storefront to display their memorabilia when the time comes. James Gerstner, a past chief of the Warwick Fire Department and a town councilman, will lead the parade as its grand marshal.
The Town of Warwick Historical Society recently honored the Warwick Fire Department at the society’s annual Under the Tent Party. They presented the department with a plaque and also dedicated a 14-foot evergreen tree at the Old School Baptist House in the fire department’s honor.
“We are fortunate to live and work in such a great community,” said Fotino. “Our goal as a department is to do the best we can to help people.”