A remaining volunteer fire-rescue squad
WILMINGTON — The men and women who make up the Wilmington Volunteer Fire and Rescue squad are among the last of a dying breed — the volunteer fire department and emergency squads that used to be common in towns and cities across the country, and the North Country. These days there are 17 members of the squad, based out of a fire station that dates back to 1958.
The fire district of the town of Wilmington was established in 1924, and the common room of the station functions as hub, meeting place, storage room and museum. The walls are lined with photos of old emergencies — a propane truck that rolled into the AuSable River, a fire that made the national news — plus group shots from the ’60s of men long gone and dozens of parade trophies. Oxygen tanks are stacked on a long table by the door.
“Volunteerism means different things to different people,” said Charlie Terry, 62, who first joined the squad in 1979. “It was something you did,” said Terry. “It’s a big, big commitment to be a volunteer. I fell in love with it.”
The squad used to number twice what it does now, but over the years fewer people have been able or willing to give the considerable time and commitment it takes, not only to do the job but to complete the many hours of required training first. Wilmington’s unit is combined firefighting and rescue; of the 17 members, six are trained emergency medical technicians. Most fire and rescue squads are now paid.
“When I was a kid, giving that to your community was something you were encouraged to do,” said Terry. “It’s not like that anymore. I don’t know why.”
The squad is a small, tight-knit group, all of whom live in Wilmington — one of the requirements of being a member. Though there are a few younger members, such as Brett Durant, 26, who joined in 2017, most of the group is over 50 — and all of them have now been vaccinated for COVID-19. Durant isn’t a volunteer but an employee, an EMT whose salary is shared between the squad and the town, a recent concession to the reality of the dwindling ranks of volunteers.
Daniel Hansen, 63, joined the crew in 2003. “I don’t do fire; I’m an ambulance driver.” Of the 250 to 300 calls they get per year, about 85% are ambulance-related.
“If they have an emergency of any kind,” said Hansen of the calls they get, “chimney fire, medical emergency, their house is on fire, their car is on fire. People call 911. In a small town, the reality is that there’s a very small group of people that guarantee this happening.”
And with Whiteface Mountain Ski Center on the edge of town, the squad responds not only to locals but to many of the tourists who come to the area to ski in the winter and to bike and hike in the summer on those ski trails. “That’s created more business for the ambulance,” Hansen said.
“Structure fires, forest fires in the summer,” continued Hansen. “It takes dedicated people to do that sort of thing. Just to help people in a time of need. It’s important work.”
Hansen is part of a long tradition. “When I was a kid my father was a volunteer fireman. I remember back then he had a plectron,” Hansen said of the now-defunct radio receivers that first responders used to use. “It was a great big thing that looked like an old-time radio. When they’d get a call, this thing would start chirpin’.” Now, he says, they use pagers — themselves nearly defunct.
On either side of the firehouse are parking bays for the serious equipment necessary for that work: two massive fire trucks, two ambulances, one rescue truck, one brush truck, a tanker, two boats and a four-wheeler, all to serve a year-round population of about 1,200.
“The bottom line is it’s a lot of fun helping,” said Louis Adragna, 46, who joined the squad in 2000 and has served as its chief since 2008.
“I can’t stop,” said Terry of the work he’s been doing for 42 years. “These are my people. I can’t leave them unattended.”