Jamestown’s volunteer firefighters are a force to be reckoned with
Most people don’t know how to climb an extension ladder, drive a fire truck or operate the jaws of life. But a growing subculture of Jamestown’s teens and young adults have been busy acquiring these skills – and more – through their involvement with the island’s volunteer fire department.
Those lessons certainly came in handy during the early morning hours of Monday, March 29, when frantic calls – mostly for flooded basements – began to pour in from island residents.
Jamestown Fire Chief Jim Bryer estimates that throughout the recent flooding, 1,800 man hours were donated by the men and women who serve on his department.
“These guys were fantastic,” Bryer said of his team of 95 firefi ghters. “We’ve got a really great group of volunteers here. They worked their tails off and not one of them complained. They just went out and did the job that they needed to do.”
On the first day of heavy rain, about half of the town’s volunteer force reported for duty, he said.
Bryer, along with Deputy Chief Ken Gladding, worked alongside the firefighters, pumping water out of basements at almost 300 homes and businesses within just two-and-a-half days.
During this time, volunteers missed work, school and family obligations. With little sleep and only a moment’s notice from an assigned pager, the men and women on the department quickly rose to the occasion to become what many in town now call local heroes.
One grateful resident was Freddie Bingell, owner of Freddie’s House of Pizza on Narragansett Avenue. Bingell made one of the first calls to the station. Although he owns a sump pump, he said, it was disabled at the time.
The dispatcher immediately sent out volunteer David Gladding, whose efforts to pump the growing level of rain water from his basement were successful. Because of Gladding’s efforts, no permanent damage was done to the basement, Bingell said.
“They were down here pronto,” he said. “I was very pleased.”
Phone calls to the fire department’s rotating dispatchers continued until Wednesday, April 1.
“There were quite a few people who had never had water in their basements,” Bryer said. “Those people were probably a little more panicky than others.”
Many of those who had experienced flooding before were prepared with proper draining
. . . . . . equipment, he said. Still, the water was too much for many sump pumps to handle.
Lieutenant Gary Largess, 21, is the youngest lieutenant to ever serve on the department.
Largess said he received a call on his pager around 2 a.m. on Tuesday, during the peak of the storm.
He didn’t stop pumping water until 2 a.m. the next day, he said.
Largess then slept for six hours and returned to duty, pumping out as many basements as he could from 8 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. that day.
“We just didn’t stop. It was just one house to another,” he said.
Largess said he witnessed furnished basements flooded with up to four feet of water. Some basements had water so high that it gushed out of bulkheads.
Largess was also baffled by the extent to which some roadways became severely flooded in a matter of just hours, making it difficult to get to homes.
“There was a river running across Park Street,” he said. “That was pretty crazy.”
Also volunteering was 18- year-old volunteer Katie Bednarczyk, who also pumped basements from 2 a.m. Tuesday until 2 a.m. Wednesday.
“It was crazy,” she said, adding that her heart went out to the residents whose homes were affected.
Although classes at North Kingstown High School were canceled on Tuesday, Bednarczyk was back at school Wednesday, after studying for a test until 3:30 a.m. – and getting only three hours of sleep.
Despite her fatigue, she continued to help her fellow firefighters for the remainder the week, even missing school entirely on Thursday.
So why would a young woman like Bednarczyk put herself through the strain and rigor of this demanding, unpaid job?
“I just thought it would be cool to try something new,” she said. “It will definitely help me get into some schools, I’m sure, but I chose it because I like volunteering.”
She is also friends with Largess, who she said recommended her for the job.
Bednarczyk spends her summers working at the recreation center and plans to study nursing at URI in the fall.
According to Bryer, education is ongoing and intensive. Candidates, who must be 18 to become firefighters, must commit to a minimum of one year of training. Any Jamestown resident over 15 can train as a volunteer with their parent’s permission.
Trainees attend weekly classes, where they study firefighting 101 – including learning the proper way to lay out a hose, vent a roof and run though a fire drill. Some firefighters can also choose to become certified EMTs.
Many safety classes at the station are taught by Training Captain James Ingari.
Ingari, the regional safety manager for Stop and Shop in Assonet, Mass., is fondly known by his fellow firefighters as “Mr. Safety” and “Safety James.”
Ingari was among the many volunteers who chose to miss work in order to stay in town and help with the flood clean-up efforts.
“I actually made the decision because of what was going on, zxthat my community needed me,” he said. “I guess that’s one of the reasons why I love this place so much. You might get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and look to the left and right and people have their pajamas on backwards or shirt on inside out. And they’re doing nothing more than to answer a call.”
Of Ingari’s nine years on the fire department, two have been spent as a training captain. He currently specializes in CPR instruction and ocean regulations.
He said he was especially impressed by the efforts of the younger volunteers, whom he said were extremely kind and professional towards residents when entering their homes.
“I’m even more so impressed with the youth. You’re talking 15- and 16-year-old kids. They stood by us like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
None of Jamestown’s firefi ghters get paid, except for Bryer, who receives a small stipend as chief.
Although the department is not understaffed, Bryer said there is always room in the department for those interested in volunteering.
For those interested in firefi ghting as a career, volunteering is an excellent way to start, Bryer said. Although firefighting is not for everyone, volunteers say the work can be fun, rewarding and at times, grueling.
“We’ve had probably a dozen guys or more that have left here and become paid firefighters,” he said, adding that about half of these men still volunteer in Jamestown.