Fighting flames and storm furies

If all the local fire department rescue squads were to meet and share their experiences, the result would probably shame any plot concocted for “reality” TV.

So it was a surprise—and good news—to learn that during this area’s recent encounters with Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, there were no really catastrophic tales to tell. That does not mean these hardworking volunteers didn’t face plenty of challenges, and they want to share some of the lessons learned with the families they serve—and save.

The Observer talked to representatives of five local fire companies: Red Hook, Rhinebeck, Rhinecliff, Milan and Tivoli.

Rich Hilbrandt is Chief of the Red Hook Fire Company, a private company with no ties to local government. The coverage territory lies between Old Post Road South up to the Columbia County line on Route 9, east to the traffic light at Routes 308 and 199, and west to the Hudson River.

The Red Hook fire-fighting fleet consists of one engine, a tanker, a ladder truck, rescue truck, brush truck and ambulance, the Chief’s car, and a fly car, known as a first-responder vehicle. The staffing consists of an Engine Company, a Truck Company and a Rescue Squad. Active membership in the company is in the range of 20 to 30 firefighters and support crew who show up all the time. On bigger calls, 45 to 50 will respond.

This is Rich’s third time as Chief. “I have 32 years with the company,” he said. “We’re all volunteers. A lot of people can’t believe we’re all volunteers. My father, Fred Hilbrandt, is actually still active here. He’s got 45 years here, and in Tivoli, he had another 11 or 12 in fire service.”

Rich recalled that during the storms, “We had one Sandy call, and for Irene we had quite a few calls, a lot of flooding, a lot of trees and wires down.”

Then in September 2012, an apparent tornado touched down near the county border. “I think in a three-hour time period, we had 15-20 calls,” Rich said.

He has one key request of residents.

“As far as storms, I just wish the public would heed the warnings and stay off the road. Unfortunately they don’t. We’re out there doing what we try to do, but they’re out there and sometimes they get in the way,” he said.

He also has suggestions for storm preparation: “The best thing is generally be prepared, keep fresh batteries, change smoke detector batteries twice a year. Sometimes the county is unable to get all the information from the callers, which will make the situation a lot worse when we get there.”

Henry Campbell is both the Safety Officer and Public Information Officer for the Rhinebeck Fire Department, which dates back to 1834. “We cover the village and everything northeast and southeast of the village,” he explained. The approximately 7,500 residents in the area are protected by the department’s 75 volunteers (45 active, 30 life members). The equipment consists of a first-line attack pumper, a tanker, a combination pumper/rescue vehicle, a 100-foot aerial ladder, and the new ambulance, purchased last year as a result of a 2011 fundraising drive that raised $150,000.

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