75 years saving lives and fighting flames

A conversation with six of Westmoreland’s finest

Ron Klopfanstein
Clinton Record writer • #bemorewestmo
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Posted 7/18/19

“The siren’s going to go off and there’s going to be people who respond.” Charlie Miller assured me. He is the President of the Westmoreland Volunteer Fire Department which will be …

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75 years saving lives and fighting flames

A conversation with six of Westmoreland’s finest

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“The siren’s going to go off and there’s going to be people who respond.” Charlie Miller assured me. He is the President of the Westmoreland Volunteer Fire Department which will be celebrating 75 years of responding to calls this Saturday.

Last week I sat down with Miller and four other members who have an average of 50 years experience in the Department: Tom Wilcox, Rodney VenBenscoten, Pete Holmes and Bernie Szarek,  and one newer recruit Hunter Besig who joined five years ago.

Last week I sat down with Miller and four other members who have an average of 50 years experience in the department; Tom Wilcox, Rodney VanBenscoten, Pete Holmes, and Bernie Szarek, and one newer recruit, Hunter Besig, who joined five years ago.

Besig picked up his application a week before his 16th birthday. He didn’t have a car his first year so he would either ride his bike to the firehouse to respond to calls or Tom Wilcox would pick him up on the way. He ran 117 calls in that first year alone. His uncle, Brad White, is a past chief. He has been around the department his whole life. He describes it as a “brotherhood.”

That’s been consistent, but other things have changed a lot in the past 75 years. The 1950 truck was the first vehicle the Fire Department purchased new. It cost $4600 and carries 500 gallons of water, and pumps 500 pounds of pressure a minute. It’s now just used for parades. The newest truck in the fleet cost $600,000, carries 1500 gallons of water, and pumps 1500 pounds of pressure a minute. Now when the fire whistle goes off members get a text and details of the fire are sent to their phones through an app. 

“What is it like to be at a fire?” I asked.

“It’s hot,” Pete Holmes laughed.

“Hot!” Wilcox, Szarek, Miller, Vanbenscoten, and Besig agreed.

The temperatures inside a blaze reach between 300 and 400 degrees. Fires literally burn hotter and with more ferocious intensity now because there’s less wood in houses and more plastics and petroleum products. 

You used to have three to five minutes to get out of a house,” VanBenscoten said. “Now you have one minute to three minutes.” 

“When it goes up it goes up in a flashover,” Wilcox said.

“The smoke will kill you before the flames ever do,” Holmes said. 

If there’s nobody in a burning building, they surround it and fight from outside. I wondered how firefighters decided when to go into a burning building and when to fight the blaze from outside.

“If there’s somebody in there then you go right to the limit,” Wilcox said. “The only time you turn around is when you’re going to die the next minute.”

Life and death decisions are made in split seconds and communicated via radio with orders coming from the outside.

“How do you even know that the floor will support you?” I asked.

“You put your foot down,” Holmes laughed. “If you fall through it’s not safe.” 

Tom Wilcox fell through a second floor once. He saw the guy ahead of him start to fall through the floor and was pulled through with him. Pete Holmes was behind him. He grabbed Wilcox’s boot. In the confusion, Holmes’s face mask was kicked off. 

“The fire was burning the hell out of me, so I was kicking like crazy,” Wilcox recalled. “And I didn’t know I was kicking him.”

In a fire, there is near zero visibility from the smoke and fumes, and the roaring flames.

“If I’d have known it was him, I’d have kicked harder.” Wilcox joked.

Being a firefighter takes a level of bravery and carries an inherent risk that distinguishes it from other volunteer positions. The ones who stay the longest have a sense of humor about it.

“How did you get out after you fell through the floor?” I asked.

“It was easy, then I was on the first floor,” Wilcox said and everyone laughed. 

Nobody goes in by themselves.

“When I first started, they’d tie a barn rope around your waist and if you didn’t come out [of a burning building] they pulled you out.” Charlie Miller said.

“Two in, two out.” Pete Holmes explained. 

“When I joined [in the 1960s], we had old rubber boots,” Tom Wilcox recalled. “There wasn’t enough for everybody. Some guys had them and some guys didn’t, and they were all size 12.” 

“We didn’t have bunker pants until 30 years ago,” Miller said referring to the protective trousers they use when fighting a blaze. Some of the first sets the volunteers wore were cast-offs from the fire crew on Griffiss Air Force Base.

“We looked like a bunch of tin men,” Wilcox laughed. 

Now you can’t keep gear for more than 10 years according to state law.

“That’s unless it has burns or chemicals or anything else you can’t wash out,” Bernie Szarek said.

If protective clothing is damaged in any way, it must be replaced at great cost. This cost of outfitting each person is considerable.  

“You’re talking fifteen hundred bucks a man,” Szarek said. 

Gear used to be shared by the whole group. It was brought to the fire and shared “first come, first serve.”

“If you got there quick enough you got it,” Rodney VanBenscoten said. “If you didn’t, you didn’t.”

The fire department is immaculately clean. The floors shine and the gear hangs neatly in lockers. The vehicles themselves are showroom perfection, the metal on the hose nozzles gleam. The constant work the volunteers do is on evident. It’s clear that those standards and that discipline is because at any minute the whistle could blow and all that equipment and all those people will be in the midst of overwhelming emergency and those crises come more often all the time.

According to “Westmoreland: 200 Years,” although the fire department was formed on May 2, 1944, they didn’t get their first call until March 6, 1947. When Tom Wilcox joined, the fire department went out on around 30 calls a year. Now it’s closer to 600 counting EMS. A lot of those are on the Thruway.

“The other day we had four EMS calls before 11 o’clock,” Miller said.

“I’ve been out responding to a call on the Thruway and gotten 16 more before I got off,” Wilcox said.

The amount of required training time is daunting too. Members sometimes train three nights a week and on Saturdays. The first year Hunter Besig joined he took four classes the first year. After recruits complete state training they have to repeat much of it with their colleagues in Westmoreland. 

“We have to be comfortable with these guys in here,” Besig explained. “They’re the ones you’re going to be fighting fires with.”

Besig has already completed 160 hours of interior firefighter training in state classes. 

“That 160 hours is for just one class,” Miller pointed out. “It is a huge commitment.”

Besig is so committed to the department that when he was looking for an apartment, he limited the search to the town of Westmoreland so he would be close enough the fire department to continue service.

“It’s such a good group of guys,” he said.

“It’s in your blood,” Holmes observed. “You can’t walk away.”

The commitment to each other and the cause, and the community has been a constant over the past 75 years.

Most of the group dispersed. Tom Wilcox, Rodney VanBenscoten and I walked outside to where there is a memorial inscribed with the names of every member over the past 75 years who has died. We sat on the stone wall circling it.

“Every time you go out you might not come back,” Wilcox said.

VanBenscoten wrote a poem with the lines:

Not for the glory or the darkest of night. The spark that burns inside me comes from within my heart. Service rendered to my fellow man became the reason why. For God, Country, community, and family my service does provide.”

Whenever he’s thought it was time to hang up the gear, he reminds himself that the reason he joined in the first place was to help people.

It takes a lot to risk your life for others, but the members of the Westmoreland Volunteer Fire Department are self-effacing, funny, and humble.

“We just put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Tom Wilcox said with a shrug while he looked on at the names of Westmoreland’s heroes past. 

Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your comments, questions, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him atTwitter.com/BeMoreWestmo

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