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Promoting volunteerism

Lakeview Fire Department celebrates 110 years, hosts 4th Battalion Parade

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Twelve men met in 1909 at the Shon Grocery Store, at the corner of Colonial Road and Brooklyn Avenue (now Woodfield Road), to organize the Lakeview Hook and Ladder Company. Funds were raised through card parties, dances and picnics to purchase a horse-drawn fire wagon, or pumper, with ladders.

The Lakeview Fire Department has remained a staple in the community ever since. It celebrated its 110th anniversary last Saturday by hosting the annual 4th Battalion Fire Department Parade, featuring fire departments of the 4th Battalion district — East Rockaway, Lakeview, Lynbrook, Malverne and Rockville Centre — and others from around the state.

Lakeview native Fred Senti Jr., president of the New York Association of Fire Districts, reflected on the growth of the department. Senti spent most of his childhood at Lakeview’s firehouse, beginning at age 8, because his father, Fred Senti Sr., was one of its volunteers for 56 years, and fire chief in 1962.

“I’ve seen the changes in the building,” Senti, 65, recalled, “and how the manpower grew over the years.”

The Company No. 1 firehouse was built on Woodfield Road in 1911, followed by Company No. 2, on Jennings Avenue, between Lincoln and Washington avenues, in 1927. In 1946, Company No. 2 was relocated to Hempstead Gardens Drive and Lincoln Avenue, where it remained until 1955, when the two companies merged.

“Back then, those fire departments were sort of like the Giants and Dodgers,” Senti said. “Once they merged, instead of that rivalry, we all worked together to serve the community.”

The department has been called for thousands of emergencies over its 100-plus years in service. Members have immersed themselves in the community through baseball games, parades, picnics, drill competitions and holiday celebrations. They have also collaborated with the West Hempstead Lions Club, the Lakeview Council and the West Hempstead Community Support Association, among other groups.

“While the inhabitants, careers, customs and physical look of a community will change with history, its need for brave, responsible and caring individuals will never alter,” said Lesley McAvoy, vice president of the West Hempstead Historical Society. “Luckily, West Hempstead continues to have those individuals who serve in various ways, many in the Lakeview and West Hempstead fire departments.”

Senti’s daughter, Heather McNeill, who is a fire commissioner, said that last Saturday’s celebration was about more than just acknowledging the department’s tradition of bringing people together. “With this celebration, we’re also trying to create the next generation of firefighters by teaching the next generation what it means to volunteer in the community,” McNeill said.

The number of volunteers in Lakeview has declined in the last 20 years, she added. It increased shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, but has slowly dwindled since then.

“Fire departments throughout New York are feeling the pinch of sustaining their volunteer service,” McNeill said. “Here in Lakeview, it comes in ebbs and flows, but now we’re shifting our focus toward attracting the millennials.”

Not many people realize how many career opportunities can grow out of volunteer firefighting, she said, including becoming an emergency medical technician, an electrician or a plumber, along with other union-related jobs. “Volunteering at a fire department provides so many chances to network and socialize with people, and it opens a lot of doors,” McNeill said. “Also, when you find ways to help the community, it makes you feel more comfortable to work with others.”

Over the years, the department has improved its volunteer training, and has increased opportunities for volunteers to get involved in community events. McNeill, who became Nassau County’s first female fire chief in 2012, also said that the fire department has become more inclusive over the years. When she broke through, she said, it wasn’t a difficult task.

“To be honest, I had it easy, because I’ve been around since I was a kid,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it would it be like if I was some kid off the street. Fortunately, the Fire Department isn’t just a boys’ club anymore.”

Senti, who served as the parade’s grand marshal, said that the department was looking to maintain its presence in the community. Roughly 700 departments belong to the state’s fire association. With many people working more than one job, he said, he understands the challenges of residents finding time to volunteer.

“We have to retain the people that we have while recruiting millennials,” Senti said. “All of the people that volunteer their time, I always say that it’s not for any other reason other than for the love of the game.”