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Hawthorne Firefighters Talk Shop: Challenges and Resident Safety

HAWTHORNE, NJ – Last month, TAPinto Hawthorne interviewed Becca Morton, the first woman to become a lieutenant in the fire department.  Yesterday, TAPinto had the opportunity to sit down with some members of Hawthorne’s Rescue Company 5 for an in-depth conversation about those who safeguard our town 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from fire and disaster-related emergencies.  Chief Joseph Speranza, Captain Joseph Pagnozzi, Lieutenant Kyle Johnson, Firefighter Joseph Gaglione, Firefighter and Company 5 President Jason Goodrich, and Probationary Firefighter Nikolais Filingeri were on hand to discuss the work they do, the challenges they face, and relate how they rise to the occasion each time an emergency is reported.

Joseph Speranza has been chief for fifteen years and is responsible for the 119 volunteers who make up the fire department.  A fleet of vehicles ranging from pumpers, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, radio equipment, and even a boat are at the disposal of Hawthorne’s fire department to combat the unpredictable scenarios they face every time the phone rings.  “In the last two years, we formed a task force of core guys and auxiliaries from the other companies.  It has really paid dividends and makes the job more efficient and safer.  It really hit its mark in the last six months,” Speranza said.

Those looking to become a volunteer firefighter and step up to the task initially undergo a battery of tests, including a spirometer test to check the condition and strength of the lungs.  X-rays, blood tests, and the like go to determine the capability of a firefighter to handle the equipment, particularly the critical air bottles and masks which they wear to breathe when battling flames or toxic gases.  “It gives us a basic picture.  We’ve been lucky, the physicals do pick up a lot,” Speranza said.  Firefighters are categorized into tiers A—unrestricted, B, and C for those not physically fit for actively battling fires, but extraordinarily useful in the other roles which support the safety, coordination, and success of an operation.

Firefighters complete a seven month program at the Passaic and Bergen County Fire Academies two nights a week and Sundays.  There is a fire department facility by the Recycling Center as well.  “We use that for further training, to bolster their knowledge,” Speranza said.  For minors interested in doing their part, the minimum age is 14 for the Junior Fire Program and once they reach 18 they can become firefighters.

The chief praised the Ladies Auxiliary for providing support.  “They come to the fire house and bring supplies; we have about fourteen girls and they always get out.  They bring water and food, and that’s vital on a large scale call.  We’re right by the EMS and they keep an eye out, they know all of us, they can check and see if something’s not looking right.”

“A three-hour fire call puts the same level of physical stress on the body as eight hours of hard labor,” Captain Pagnozzi said.  Pagnozzi is also a Fire Inspector for the City of Paterson in addition to his volunteer service to his hometown.

Each time the phone rings, however, does not necessarily mean there is a fire.  Though there are a number of fires which break out, the majority of calls in town are service calls, meaning residents report issues which are carbon monoxide related, or due to burst pipes, or they smell gas.  These are known, somewhat tongue in cheek, as “smells and bells.”  The month of January, 2018, was unprecedented.  “We had 61 calls for January, a record without a natural disaster,” Speranza said.

“A lot of these were due to the vicious cold,” said Johnson.

“The cold is worse than the heat,” Speranza added, “you burn up energy so much faster in the cold.”

“It bites right through you,” said Pagnozzi.  “You get a call in the middle of the night, jump out of bed, it’s freezing out, you get in the car, and you’re off.”

“Our force is volunteer,” said Johnson, “you can get a call at 1:00 in the morning, you might fight a fire for hours, then you go to work.”

The compressed air bottles which are attached to their face masks provide a maximum of forty-five minutes of breathable air, but a safety window is built-in.  “It’s fifteen minutes in, and fifteen minutes out, so half an hour,” Speranza said.  Firefighters need to remain alert and the officers see that support is on hand.  “We always have a safety team ready to evacuate, the ‘Fast Team’.”

The job of a firefighter is a difficult one, but these vigils of the public safety willingly and dutifully commit their time and risk their well being to the safety and preservation of their community.  The borough of Hawthorne itself is a changing place, and with new buildings come new challenges for the fire department.

“It’s all about tactics,” Johnson said, “we are constantly training, constantly coming up with new ways to tackle scenarios, whether it is this place in town, or that building, we’re always keeping ahead of the curve.  We are constantly thinking up the worst-case scenarios.”

New building materials have posed problems for firefighters.  “Time is a factor,” Speranza said.  “With sprinklers and smoke detectors in place, it can help.  But years ago a fire would double in size a minute, now they triple.  The new construction materials are not like they used to be.  The furniture, too, it just speaks of the quality of products.”  Chemical compounds, plastics, PVC, engineered lumber, and electronics all pose serious hazards when burning.  The chief said that new building construction would do well to have sprinklers and smoke detectors installed in unoccupied spaces, such as attics, to help get an edge on fire containment, especially when newer buildings tend to incorporate increasingly flammable materials.

The firefighters all agreed that one of the most serious threats comes from the fumes and smoke, even more than the flames themselves.  They spoke at length of the risks from cyanide gas poisoning, a byproduct of certain chemical fires.  Speranza takes the well-being of the force very seriously.  Since cyanide-related symptoms might not manifest right away, he does not take chances.  “When it’s detected, we get them sent to the hospital.”

“Car fires are the worst,” said Pagnozzi, “there’s no rhyme or reason with them,” referring to the myriad chemicals and materials made up in cars.  New car models coming out also mean that firefighters are continually learning how to safely extract victims who may be trapped inside.  He also highlighted the dangers posed by the huge batteries employed by new electric and hybrid cars.

When drivers hear the sirens of a fire truck, they need to give them space.  “Our drivers are aggressive drivers, not defensive.  They need to get to their destination fast,” Speranza said.  An apparatus is driven by a thoroughly trained firefighter, one who has undergone a forty hour program and is often delivering a half-million dollars worth of equipment and transporting 8-10 firefighters on the vehicle itself.

When asked if staffing was ever an issue, the chief nodded.  “It goes through peaks and valleys but the past seven years it’s been stable.  We also supply support to Glen Rock, Prospect Park, and North Haledon on a confirmed structure fire.  We built a sturdy network.”

Residents can take steps to help reduce the threat of fire in their own homes.  “Extension cords are a big problem,” said Pagnozzi.  “People have heaters and lamps on them.  Those need a dedicated outlet.”

“Unattended candles are another,” said Johnson, “people can clean out appliances, clean out their ovens to avoid grease fires.  The flexible conduit leading from laundry dryers should be cleaned out periodically.”

“Simple cleaning, clean chimneys,” said Speranza, echoing Johnson.  “Also, everything is plugged in,” he warned about overloaded or neglected electronics.  “Plugged in USB chargers still draw energy even when not in use.  Unplug it when you’re done.”

An increase in the number of calls over the years, 2017 being recorded as the fire department’s busiest year, is also due to a growing awareness by the residents themselves.  “We try to educate people to help mitigate problems.  A lot of problems are self-inflicted.  Fire prevention is dedication.”