Jack Mildner remembers Elmont when it was mostly farmland. He remembers walking to school on the town’s dirt roads, passing the trees and marshes that were the only notable landmarks that lined his route. Things have changed considerably since then, of course — “tremendously,” Mildner says.
And the 83-year-old honorary chief and treasurer of the Elmont Fire Department remembers it all as if it were yesterday.
As he reminisced one day last week, Mildner, a 63-year veteran of the department who has seen many firefighters pass through the ranks, said that every person who is part of the team becomes like family, no matter how long or short their service. He described a sense of brotherhood in the department, saying that there is mutual respect among fire service veterans, some of whom Mildner grew up with and many of whom he has mentored.
Jimmy Snadecky, 61, a 41-year member of the department and a former chief, says he owes his success to Mildner. From day one, Snadecky said, he emulated Mildner, admiring his work ethic and steadfastness. “[Mildner] is why I got into the Department, mainly,” Snadecky said. “I owe everything to Jack. I’d watch him all the time, and any time the whistle would go off, he’d jump in his car and leave, [and] I’d try to chase him with my bicycle. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
Snadecky’s memory elicited laughter from other veterans of the department, who obviously could relate. Ray Ross, 70, a former captain, joined the department the same year as Snadecky. At the time, neither one anticipated the formation of such close-knit bonds that would last four decades. Friendship was expected; brotherhood was a bonus.
Most of the members of the department, past and present, join because they are inspired to be of service and because someone close to them is a member. Ross said it might as well be known as being “born into” the department. That’s what happened in his case, he said. After he married and got to know his wife’s aunts and uncles, who were involved in the department, he became interested as well. The rest is history.
For Vincent Focazio Sr., 75, a 54-year member of the department and an honorary chief, becoming a firefighter was not without its struggles. He said that unlike his fellow veterans, who jumped aboard as soon as the idea came to them, he wasn’t certain at first that he wanted to join.
“My brother joined first,” Focazio said. “I mean, my family’s been there since the 1880s. But I didn’t really want to join, to be honest. I said to myself, those guys are idiots jumping off the trucks! And then I joined.”
Mildner and Ross said that the toughest part of life in the department today, especially when compared to when they started fighting fires, is that there’s more of everything — training, technology, the high volume of calls. The other veterans agreed that many of their challenges today come from seemingly never-ending advancements in technology.
“A lot of the automatic alarms are nonsense,” Snadecky said. Mildner added that when he first joined the department, a busy year meant 100 calls. Now there are an average of 100 calls a month. Many of them are no more serious than smoke alarms, set off by food on the stove or showers. But every call that comes in is treated seriously.
“We get these automatic alarms, and a lot of them turn out to be false alarms,” Ross said. “But you can’t assume that the next one is going to be the same thing. That one time is when you could have something major. The response is the same no matter what it is.”
Richard Hogan, 74, a member of the department for 56 years and a former chief, estimates that over half of those 100 calls per month are false alarms. “Cooking, shower steam and exhausts are the three things you get from the automatic alarms,” Hogan said. “If we get 100 calls a month, probably 60 are from automatic alarms. There’s 81 departments in Nassau County. We’re in the top five or 10 for most calls.”
But, as has been the case for the half a century and more under the belts of many of the veterans, it’s all part of the job.
And most of them aren’t planning to call it a day anytime soon, either.
“Where are we going to go?” Focazio said.
“We don’t have anything else to do,” Hogan added. “We don’t know any better.”