By Alan M. Petrillo
The Lake George (NY) Volunteer Fire Department (LGVFD) is a small department covering an Adirondack mountain town and the surrounding area along a 32-mile-long, three-mile-wide lake dotted with 395 islands. It’s a typical small-village fire department running five main pieces of equipment with 44 volunteer firefighters.
But, being in the mountains means making the best use of the personnel available, so Lake George VFD has a number of much older (in their 60s and 70s) firefighters still riding rigs and answering alarms.
Hugh J. Sullivan, 72, has 40 years in the department and says he’s held every fire department and emergency medical squad position possible. “I’ve even been in some positions that don’t exist anymore,” Sullivan notes. “I was chief of the fire department for four years, captain of the EMS and president of both organizations.”
Sullivan points out that he’s operated every piece of apparatus the department has owned during his 40 years of service, including his favorite: a late 1980s Pierce 2,000-gallon tanker that carried a 1,000-gallon-per-minute (gpm) pump.
“One of my most memorable runs came not as a vehicle operator, but as a firefighter on the back step of a 1980s Maxim pumper in the days when we could ride the back step,” Sullivan says. “The second time that the Lake George Hotel burned, we were assigned to lay from fire to water, down to the lake so we could draft. The officer put me on the tailboard of an open-cab Saulsbury GMC front-mount pumper and proceeded to lay hose to the lake, with the hose flying off the bed over my head. That was in 1978 and, when the fire was out, the hotel was nothing but a chimney.”
Sullivan has another unusual memory of what occurred on the back step of a 1960s American LaFrance pumper. “Back before the days when we had to strap in on the back step, I was on the tailboard heading to a rural structure fire a long way out from our station,” he says. “The driver took a corner really fast and it kicked me off the back step, but I was able to grab onto the extension ladder that stuck out the back of the truck.”
Sullivan continues, “It was summer and as we passed the intersection, a woman standing there screamed as I passed by, flying along and hanging onto the ladder. I regained my footing on the back step and held on with a lot more gusto from then on. The ironic thing was that the driver was an undertaker in town who had first talked me into joining the fire department.”
Bob McKinney, 79, has 53 years of service with Lake George VFD, and has served as assistant chief, in officer positions, and in civil officer roles. “When I joined in 1961, the gear was on the fire truck—four or five sets of boots, coats, and helmets,” McKinney says. “You went right to the scene and depending on when you got there, you might not have gear that fit you.”
McKinney says he believes he’s the only active firefighter in the department who has worked out of all three firehouses the department has had. “I ran out of the Iroquois Street station, then the Ottawa and Amherst Streets firehouse, and then the new firehouse we built on the same site,” he notes.
Don Fangboner has 28 years in service with Lake George and, at age 73, is still pulling duty as a firefighter, although this past year he decided to forego interior work. “I passed the physical and fit test, but told the doc I was going to work only on the outside, where there is still plenty to be done,” Fangboner says. “A 70-something year old man doesn’t belong in a house with an air pack on.”
Fangboner has a fond memory of an unusual use a driver devised for the department’s 1979 American LaFrance aerial ladder. “We had a house fire that we couldn’t get close to,” he says. “So the driver extended the ladder horizontally, pushed the tip through a window and opened up the nozzle to put out the fire.”
Bill Manion, 72, a Queens, New York, native who moved to Lake George in 1979, has a total of 47 years of service with the Hardyston Township (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department (14 years) and LGVFD (33 years). “The smoke gets in your blood so that you can’t give it up,” Manion says. “I’m with the fire police now but miss the air packs and hoselines. One of my favorite vehicles was the front-mount brush truck that we used as a quick-attack vehicle. It saw a lot of big fires.”
These days, LGVFD still runs out of a single station, protecting about 3,600 year-round residents and a summer population of approximately 50,000. The department’s apparatus includes a 2002 American LaFrance pumper with a 1,500-gpm pump and 1,000-gallon water tank; a 2008 Pierce Arrow XT tanker with 1,500-gpm and 3,000-gallon water tank; a 1995 Sutphen SP70 70-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump and 500-gallon water tank; a 1995 Ford F-450 SD/S&S quick-attack pumper with a 1,000-gpm pump and 300-gallon water tank; a 1992 E-ONE/FMI walk-in heavy rescue; a 1991 Unicell/WildeFire dive truck; a 1995 Ford F-250 rescue truck; a marine rescue boat, an Achilles Dive boat; three chief vehicles; and two utility vehicles. The department is awaiting delivery of a 2014 Pierce Saber pumper with a 1,250-gpm pump and a 1,000-gallon water tank.
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.
By Alan M. Petrillo