When any firefighter dies, word goes out through the firefighting network that a brother or sister has ‘answered their last alarm.’
Often these firefighters have not technically died in the line of duty, but in a life of volunteer service, every day is lived in the spirit of duty. Sometimes they die after many years of service to their community.
Sometimes they die a day after answering three alarms, as happened when Riverhead fireman Richie Ligon died last month, leaving friends and relatives to wonder if the strain of their love for firefighting had led to their untimely end.
Sometimes they die helping their friends and neighbors, or their family, as happened when Cutchogue fireman Jason Cooper died last Wednesday, while working on a ladder helping his mother at her house.
No matter the circumstances, these deaths hit fellow firefighters to the core, and remind us all of the way death walks beside us as we go through life, unaware of how close we are to a wrong turn that could lead to our own end.
On June 11, 1977, 40 years ago today, Greenport firefighters Richard Sycz, who was nearing his 27th birthday, and Edward “Bruce” Bellefountaine, 18, responded to a house fire on Carpenter Street in the village.
Both men ran out of breathing air and died while searching the smoke-filled house for a 10-year-old girl, whose mother didn’t know at the time that her daughter had escaped the house with her father.
As fate would have it, a drill team event scheduled in Sag Harbor that night had been cancelled, or Mr. Bellefountaine would have been out of town, remembered the department’s chaplain, Claude Kumjian, at the fire department’s annual memorial service this morning.
Mr. Sycz was a football star, ex-captain and heavy equipment operator for the state Department of Transportation, who, if he had lived, “would have been a chief of this department,” said Mr. Kumjian.
Mr. Bellefountaine was “a new member, he might have still been probationary, but he took his training, he was active and he knew what to do,” he added.
Mr. Kumjian had been working as an emergency dispatcher in 1977, and Mr. Bellefountaine often visited him to train. The day before he died, Mr. Bellefountaine had sat with Mr. Kumjian for several hours, learning the ropes. When he left, the sergeant in charge turned to Mr. Kumjian and said “you’ve got a good man there. He’s going to go far.”
And if he’d lived, he might have done just that.
As, two by two, the firefighters paid their respects to a statue erected at the firehouse in memory of their lost brothers, Mr. Kumjian reminded them all to always stay safe and remember their training.
More longtime Greenport firefighters answered their last alarm than usual this year, said the department’s Second Assistant Chief, Susano Jimenez, at this morning’s service, but the trend is not unique to Greenport. Our volunteer fire service on the East End is aging, and young people, burdened by the high cost of living and increasing work hours, are not refilling the ranks when older firefighters die or retire.
This is a cry echoing in firehouses from Orient to Montauk and everywhere in between. Becoming a first responder is a big commitment, and a dangerous one that is not to be taken lightly.
Children’s television star Fred Rogers famously comforted kids (many of whom are now adults, and still comforted by the story) by telling them that when they see something scary in their neighborhood, they should “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
No one in our neighborhoods exemplifies the role of helpers more than our fire and EMS volunteers. But they are struggling to find more helpers, at a time when many of us are more scared than ever before. Maybe today is the day you will take a stand and volunteer to be there for you community in their times of need. If you do, you will be remembered. And that’s the best outcome any of us can hope to have with our life’s work.