Changing Priorities flash before a fire chief's eyes

Loujane Johns
Photo by Loujane Johns
Penn Yan Fire Chief Rick Retorick recently took over the post which was handed down by Brian Winslow. The demands of the job, and the broad issues that a chief has to handle, have changed significantly since Winslow’s father, Bart served as chief.

Trying to catch up with Penn Yan Fire Chief Rick Retorick for an interview is like trying to catch a fire truck speeding to a call.

He was a little late for the  4 p.m. appointment at the Penn Yan Firehouse. Retorick was probably running late from his job at the Navy Barge in Dresden.  He has worked there as a government contractor for General Dynamics for 12 years. This I learned from the locksmith, who was also waiting for the new chief. 

When he arrived around 4:15, he answered Wright’s questions and set him up at the computer and told me to have a seat.  He quietly adds that he has another person stopping in at 4:30.

Good. We are ready to talk as he picks up a letter opener and digs into a huge pile of mail while still maintaining his attention to my first questions.

The 1982 Penn Yan Academy graduate has been a fire department member for over 25 years. He started out as a Junior Fireman at age 12. The family moved to the area from Pennsylvania when he was about four.  His father, uncles and cousins were firemen, although when they moved to Penn Yan, his father didn’t join.  His mother said it took too much time.

Big sister Krisann (see related story) says Rick always wanted to be a fireman.  As a young child, she remembers he even hooked up a battery pack to his bike so he could have a flashing light.

As a junior fireman, when the horn sounded, he would stand out front, sometimes on a snow bank, to flag down a passing member for a ride.

Just as the interview is rolling, a man comes in to discuss why Retorick’s radio is not working.  For a chief, this a very important conversation.

A topic we were both interested in talking about is changes over the years in fire departments. 

Even though Retorick is fairly young, he has been around the firehouse long enough to see many changes.  Anyone familiar with the brotherhood of fire fighters knows that the older guys have lots of stories to tell and experiences to share.

Retorick starts at the first link, dispatch.  At one time, he says, there was a “fire tree.”  The chief was called by telephone and then the alarm went down the line.  Sometimes the men went out the door and the wives continued the calls. 

Then the fire horn came into being, using  a numbered signal of blasts to indicate the location of the emergency.  The department is occasionally contacted by somebody wanting an old copy of the horn blast codes as a memento. 

Getting rid of the horn has been talked about for some years, but members think it is a good system, when electricity is out or pagers are forgotten.

Retorick recalls one incident, when a car went into the airport hanger, causing a fuel leak. The horn summoned more help.

The calls have changed a lot, according to Retorick.  He attributes more fire prevention education and safer buildings to a decrease in fire calls.  A lot of their calls are for motor vehicle accidents. 

The department has a rescue squad equipped with extrication tools, which is used throughout the county.  At one time PYFD had a First Responder Unit, but Retorick says with Penn Yan Ambulance nearby, it was discontinued.

Call volume for the PYFD has dropped and averages about 200 a year. This number includes false alarms, link-to-life and mutual aid.

Personal equipment has gone high-tech. Once made of rubber, bunker gear is made of Nomex.

He can remember the old style breathing apparatus. New versions make dealing with toxic burning materials in such things as carpets and walls, a lot safer.

Fire trucks have gotten a lot bigger and are filled with a lot of gadgets, according to Retorick. All are now automatic and have power steering.

Now there are only about 20 members who are qualified as “drivers.”  The driver of the ladder truck has to know how to operate everything on that truck.  Some are only “carded” to operate the ladder mechanism, but not the vehicle. 

Retorick, and other fire chiefs throughout the state, are grateful that a law that called for all emergency personnel drivers to have a  commercial driver’s license (CDL) was stricken.  He said the law stated that a CDL was not needed to respond to a call, but if the driver didn’t have one they couldn’t drive back from the incident, to a parade or drill.

Another visitor, Past Chief and Deputy Sheriff Brian Winslow stops in the office to see how things are going.  Retorick responds, ”Great,” and we continue.

“The Penn Yan Fire Department used to have a waiting list for people who wanted to become members, that has really changed,” Retorick says.  At one time there were over 100 members.  Now he estimates there are 65.  Two of those members, John MacKerchar and Paul Kubli are over 80 years of age.

In the old days, a person just showed up at the firehouse  and said ‘I want to be a member.’ They were shown around and went to fires. Now, Retorick says, there are strict federal and state training requirements. 

Today’s firefighters are very well trained and equipped, but this requires many hours of commitment, which the chief says people just don’t have.  “Lifestyle is different.  Some people work two jobs or the spouse works a different shift requiring someone to stay with the kids,” he explains.

To become a member an application must be made to one of the four Penn Yan companies. The PYFD has four individual companies operating under the same roof and known as The Penn Yan Fire Department. The company does an investigation including a background check. The applicant is then voted on and if approved must also be approved by the Penn Yan Village Board.

Within the first year, the new member is required to take “Scene Support” a nine week course, one night a week for three hours.  Or they may take “Firefighter I” for 26 weeks, one night a week for three hours.  In recalling his own training 25 years ago, Retorick remembers taking Essentials of Firemanship for 13 weeks, one night for three hours.

To stay on the active roster,  members must attend one drill (two hours) every three months. Each company and the entire department has one drill a month. Members are “encouraged” to attend their company meetings. 

The department now has a Length of Service Incentive Program, as an incentive for volunteers to join and stay active for many years. Training, drills and length of service accumulates points for a pension type plan after 20 to 30 years of service.A $10,000 life insurance policy is also included, added Retorick.

“The fire department is no longer ‘social club.’  We still have Ladies Night, barbecues and dinners before meetings,  but it’s pretty serious business. Most members don’t have a lot of time to hang around the firehouse,” Retorick says, as the next person in line waits to see him.