Practice Makes Perfect For First Responders

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The Stewart Manor Fire Department has been safeguarding the life and property of its residents for 89 years and counting; to make sure that they’re always ready for anything at a moment’s notice, SMFD Deputy Chief Tom Skinner notes that his men are amongst the hardest-training firefighters in all of Nassau County.

“We train twice a week, every week, and we do it to keep our guys ready for when the big one comes,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of fires in our village, so a lot of our action is mutual aid…we’ll take an engine to Floral Park or elsewhere if they have a fire, but since we don’t get a lot of fires here, it gives us a lot of time to train. Not everyone comes to every training session, but most guys show up at least four times a month, and that’s great. Of course, we do get guys that show up eight times a month, and that’s even better.”

A Stewart Manor Fire Department rig outside of the Nassau County Fire Service Academy
A Stewart Manor Fire Department rig outside of the Nassau County Fire Service Academy

According to Fire Chief Ronald Sopp, the SMFD is steeped in history. Back in the 1950s, they had one of the first ambulance and EMT services in all of western Nassau County, and despite the relative lack of home and business fires within his district, Sopp said that they still keep quite busy all year long.

“We do an average of over 300 calls a year,” he said. “Last year we did about 250 EMS calls, and about 90 fire calls.”

The SMFD currently has approximately 43 members, although when Skinner first joined about 12 years ago he said the department had almost 70. Despite fewer volunteers recently, things are starting to look up, as the department has five new recruits this year alone. However, Skinner said, the SMFD is always on the lookout for more members interested in safeguarding their community.

Stewart Manor Fire Department getting ready to enter a smoke-filled structure during a drill.
Stewart Manor Fire Department getting ready to enter a smoke-filled structure during a drill.

The real secret weapon of the SMFD’s training regimen is the Nassau County Fire Service Academy, an enormous state-of-the-art 2.4 acre facility located in Old Bethpage.

Responsible for training every single firefighter throughout Nassau County ever since opening its doors back in 1962, the fire academy features numerous instructors, classrooms and a massive training facility featuring a large number of real-world buildings and structures where actual fires can be set and extinguished in a controlled environment.

This Garden City Life reporter was lucky enough to accompany the SMFD to their most recent training excursion to the Fire Academy and it’s easy to see why Skinner refers to the facility as the very best of the best.

“Normally we train at the Fire Service Academy four nights a year but lately we’ve been doing even better and averaging about 12 nights a year for the last few years… it’s one of the best schools in the country by far,” he said. “They have multiple buildings­—including a six-story tower—so you can get experience on stretching line all the way up those stairs. You have a warehouse, you have capes, and most of all —which is especially helpful because we have them in our village—we have garden-style apartments.”

From left: Deputy Chief Tom Skinner and Fire Chief Ronald Sopp
From left: Deputy Chief Tom Skinner and Fire Chief Ronald Sopp

“They also have a setup of Long Island Rail Road trains and propane buses for car accidents,” Sopp added. “Tonight, we’re going to be doing an exercise with a cape-style house…we’re going to be simulating a real house fire. There’s a lot of heat and a lot of smoke in this type of dwelling, and you’re basically blind the whole time. Honestly, I don’t think there could be anything better than the Nassau Fire Academy. It’s really the best in the nation, as far as I’m concerned.”

The cape fire was set by academy instructors in the building’s garage; however, this was left up to the Stewart Manor firefighters to discover for themselves. Hauling heavy hoses from their tanker trucks, the department members—both veterans and trainees—acquitted themselves admirably, extinguishing the flames and discovering and “rescuing” hidden mannequins standing in as victims trapped in the dwelling. After each drill, a crack squad of Academy instructors critiqued the SMFD’s performance and offered both praise and suggestions for improvement.

Deputy Chief Skinner directing traffic during the drill
Deputy Chief Skinner directing traffic during the drill

Such hard work on the part of the SMFD has resulted not only in an extreme level of proficiency, but also safety. According to Skinner, the department has only lost one member in the line of duty, ex-Chief Edward Jackson, and the SMFD’s dedication to training is to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again while they fight to keep their community safe.

“It gives me comfort to know my guys are ready and that no one’s going to get hurt, because at the end of the day our biggest goal is that we all go home to our families,” he said. “That’s why we work so hard at this…so that nobody gets hurt or killed in a fire, and it could happen very easily. So we bust our tails not only for that reason, but so when the call comes, we are ready to save the lives of our neighbors.”

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