Jason Mitchell, first lieutenant at the Huntington Fire Company No. 3, missed Christmas Eve dinner this past year because he was called to a fire in the city.
His service and sacrifice are just a part of what he and others consider an important part of being a fire department member.
“There’s pride in what you do,” Mitchell said.
The Huntington fire company was organized in 1919, and is the second oldest in the city.
That doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past, however. Its members keep track of where they came from and keep their minds toward the future.
Toward the blaze
Second Lt. Don Zak, a 40-year member, recalls the time in 1985 when the company bought a rescue truck.
“We raised every dime,” Zak said, for the $185,000 vehicle. “There’s pride.”
Joe Constantino, assistant chief at the firehouse, sees another bond that members share.
“Everybody in this department has a basic drive to help people,” he said. “Why do people run toward a burning building while others run away? That’s the basic drive we have to protect life and property.”
Constantino, who joined the fire department in December 1990, said he fought his first fire in April 1991 at the Boys & Girls Club.
More recent fire calls that come to mind are the Latex Foam fire in June that brought firefighters from Shelton, Monroe, Derby, Ansonia and Stratford, and the Howe Avenue fire in January.
Zak was dispatched to the Howe Avenue blaze in Huntington’s engine tanker when the water main failed.
According to dispatch protocol, one company almost never responds alone to a structure fire.
The 18-square-mile coverage area for the department ranges from the Trumbull, Stratford and Monroe lines to White Hills, the Elizabeth Shelton School, Shelton Intermediate School and Bridgeport Avenue.
The company responded to 495 calls in 2013 and averages between 450 and 600 calls a year.
There’s no pattern to fire calls, Constantino said, with a spate of fires during the day and none at night, and then the opposite.
“It’s hit or miss,” he said.
The Huntington company has a ladder truck, a rescue truck, a reserve engine, an engine tanker and a utility van.
Although a new rescue truck is expected by mid-August, the firehouse, built in 1969, is hampered by a lack of space, the members of the company said. That’s not unusual in fire departments, they said; it’s a nationwide concern.
“Our biggest problem is space and apparatus needs,” Zak said. “Because of building restrictions, we have to sacrifice. The building isn’t large enough.”
In order to get a 10-foot-high piece of equipment into the firehouse, a portion of the ceiling had to be removed, he said.
Newly designed fire trucks aren’t the only things that demand adaptation.
“It’s an exciting time,” Mitchell said. “It’s not just putting water on fires. It’s an evolution.”
With evolution comes a time to learn. Within the department, there’s ongoing training to match new technology.
“Here, I learn mechanical skills,” he said, including furnace repair, dealing with hazardous materials and adjusting techniques of automobile accident rescue.
“You have to stabilize the vehicle,” he said, and in hybrid cars, “you can’t just cut the door off. You have to avoid electric wires.”
Mitchell said he was drawn to firefighting not only for the adrenaline rush but also for the problem-solving opportunities.
“The training part is a big piece,” Constantino said, and that also applies to learning about the construction of buildings.
“It’s comforting when you see a building and can see the limitations,” he said, and Shelton business owners often “walk us through the facilities before they’re occupied.”
These days, many buildings are constructed with synthetic materials that create gases when they burn, which adds trouble when fighting fires.
Years ago, people could survive longer in burning buildings, Zak said, but today sofas that are made with latex, and artificial Christmas trees, burn much faster.
Firefighters are trained not to climb onto truss roofs, he said. Rather than being made of heavy timber, truss roofs are made of pieces of wood held together with plates and spikes.
“If one piece fails, it’s a domino effect,” Constantino said, and construction is often more flimsy to cut costs.
Firefighters often put their individual skills to use when fighting fires, he said, and members include those who work in the HVAC or telephone industries.
“It’s good we have the diversity,” he said. “It’s like a brotherhood and sisterhood.”
The company has six women members, who undergo the same training as their male counterparts. There are five or six 16- to 18-year-olds and the same number of 18- and 19-year-olds.
Every Sunday morning, fire department members of all ages gather at the firehouse on Church Street to wash the fire trucks, Mitchell said.
“You become a family,” Zak said. “It’s a second home.”
Members are already planning parades, open houses and carnivals to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary.
Fund raising is the first priority, they said, to cover the expenses of the celebration.
“We’re more than firefighting and rescue,” Constantino said, and Mitchell agrees.
“We’re involved in the community,” he said. “We’re public servants.”