Neighborly spirit and family commitment on display at Shelton’s White Hills Fire

“Neighbors Helping Neighbors” is the motto of White Hills Fire Company No. 5, formed in 1947 by some of the 50 families who lived in the White Hills area.

Many of the founders were farmers, and several present-day members are the sons of charter (founding) members.

The White Hills coverage area — from the Monroe line to Indian Wells State Park and Meadow Street — includes mostly farms and homes, and the spirit of neighborliness and family loyalty is still present.

There are more father and sons and siblings who are members than at other of the city’s four fire companies, said Bruce Kosowsky, a White Hills firefighter since 1967.

Kosowsky is a former fire commissioner and serves as assistant engineer at White Hills. “I make sure everything is in working order,” he said.

His father, John Kosowsky, was a charter member and served as fire company captain three or four times.

“My father was active in the fire department,” Kosowsky said. “He died at a young age. I was impressed how the fire department came out for him."

'Community service'

Kosowsky said his father left him an important legacy. “My father impressed on me why community service was a good thing to do,” he said.

Present-day member Tony Martinka said his father, Joe Martinka, was also a charter member.

As a boy, Tony drove his own small fire engine in fire department parades, and later he joined the company to help swell the ranks of daytime volunteers.

The rewards of membership include “doing something good for the community and the camaraderie,” he said.

Around the corner

Asst. Fire Chief Daryl Osiecki grew up right around the corner from Fountain Hose Co. in Ansonia and was impressed by the activity at the station.

When his family later moved to Shelton, many of his Shelton High School friends joined the White Hills company. “From day one, it felt like it was something I wanted to do,” Osiecki said. “It seemed like a lot of fun.”

He became a member in 1992 as an 18-year-old and has served as lieutenant and captain at White Hills and as a city assistant chief from 2003-2010.

Osiecki is a firefighter for Hamden, and was previously a member of Shelton’s Echo Hose volunteer fire company. Echo Hose is the city’s oldest firehouse, while White Hills is the youngest.

“Both places have a lot of tradition,” he said.

Current firehouse opened in 1975

The original White Hills firehouse was located across School Street in a building that had been a civic club.

The present firehouse at 2 School St. was built and dedicated in 1975. It had five bays when it opened, with a sixth bay later added to house a tanker truck, Kosowsky said.

“Trucks are getting bigger and bigger. Thankfully, the company prepared for the future,” said Kosowsky, constructing bays with ample height.

Memorable fire calls

The current fire station opened just a week after White Hills members fought the massive B.F. Goodrich fire that eventually gutted three city blocks and was termed “the largest industrial arson fire in the nation’s history,” according to the White Hills Fire Company website.

“It was a long night,” said Kosowsky, recalling the blaze that began on a frigid Saturday, March 1, 1975 and lasted more than 24 hours.

Kosowsky, who joined White Hills company at age 16, remembers helping out at brush fires and at a large barn fire on Route 110 in 1969. “It was my first big fire,” he said.

It was a much quicker initiation for Martinka. “I joined on a Thursday and on Friday afternoon I was riding the back of a truck,” he said, to extinguish a car fire on Leavenworth Road.

Osiecki remembers the 1993 Hunter’s Corner fire at Howe Avenue and Bridge Street, followed two weeks later by the Samarius lamp factory blaze on Canal Street.

“Shelton has had its fair share of fires,” he said.

Members also recall a 56-car pile-up on Route 110 in December 2009 when the road became a sheet of ice after a rainfall.

“The accident took ten minutes to happen,” Osiecki said, but there were only minor injuries. “Company 1 [Echo Hose] and White Hills did a great job.”

'Reputation for saving structures'

Most calls come in from residential or commercial fire alarms, Osiecki said, and a lot are caused by “smoke from cooking or steam from a shower.”

He estimates that 5% of the company’s calls are “full blown fires.”

“We’ve had a good reputation for saving structures,” Osiecki said. “Our firefighters are very aggressive and well trained.”

Extinguishing fires quickly is challenging when older houses in the Valley area are often built close together, and when cheaper construction materials used in newer structures burn much more quickly.

“They’re firefighter killers,” Osiecki said. “They’re not built for fire.”

Many condominium complexes and commercial buildings are built using lightweight truss construction. “If one part fails, the whole thing comes down,” he said.

Often, pressboard and glue have replaced wood and long nails, resulting in fires burning hotter and faster, the men said.

Training and equipment get better

At the same time, firefighter training, and safer equipment, gear and apparatus are continually evolving. “You learn from other people’s mistakes and your own,” Osiecki said.

New features in recent years have been rapid intervention teams (RITs) that fight together during structure fires and new techniques to retrieve firefighters from burning buildings.

Older members have seen far-reaching advances in training and firefighting over the years. “My head is spinning,” Martinka said. “It’s really amazing.”

Support from community, city

Much of the money raised through company fund-raisers — including pancake breakfasts, Easter flower sales, boot drives and ziti dinners — goes toward equipment, uniforms and supplemental training, but major expenses are covered by the city.

“We’re very fortunate,” Martinka said, because the city supports the fire department and Fire Chief Francis Jones promotes training and recruitment.

White Hills Fire raised money for its first truck in 1948, but the city took over the purchase of apparatus in 1973.

The most recent addition is the company’s first ladder truck, and White Hills also has a rescue pumper truck, a tanker truck, a light duty rescue truck and a brush fire vehicle.

The 1968 Dodge Power Wagon, now considered an antique, was the company’s original brush fire truck, and Martinka, who joined the company in 1980, received qualification from service on the truck.

The Power Wagon saw service from 1968 to 1985.

Many willing to volunteer

Because the city has four fire companies, there’s always coverage for fires, the men said, and in terms of volunteer coverage, White Hills is in good shape.

“It seems we have a lot of volunteers here in the daytime,” Martinka said, including several local business owners.

Currently, the department has one woman member, and has had a “handful” of women members in the past, including Osiecki’s wife Christine.

The White Hills company attracts new members through word of mouth, the men said, and there’s often a sign in front of the firehouse inviting prospective volunteers to pick up applications.

 Auxiliary members

The youngest member of the company is 16 years old, and people ages 16 to 18 are auxiliary members. They help out at the fire station and at fire scenes, but don’t fight fires or enter burning structures, Osiecki said.

Sean Albright, 17, a Shelton High School student, said he started out doing community service at the firehouse.  “I enjoyed the people,” he said. “Often I saw them responding to calls. I found it exciting.”

Martinka sees a bright future for the White Hills company because of its many young members. “They’re very dedicated,” he said. “We’re very fortunate.”