Firefighters at the Gerritsen Beach Fire Department, the only volunteer fire department in Brooklyn, played a big role in rescuing residents stuck in their flooded homes when Superstorm Sandy hit one year ago.
Gerritsen Beach lies on a peninsula in the southeastern part of Brooklyn – barely visible on a map.
The neighborhood, which was classified a Zone B evacuation area during Sandy, meant residents weren’t instructed to evacuate their homes like Zone A neighborhoods. This left many stuck in their homes when the storm hit.
“We went to this house over here on the water practically,” said GBFD volunteer firefighter Pat Klein, recalling one rescue effort out of many that day when volunteer firefighters, who get no monetary compensation for their work, went to rescue two handicapped people from their home.
“The street was flooding and we were coming up,” he said. “There was a log in front of our truck. …”
Luckily the driver of the firetruck figured out how to navigate around the log, which turned out to be a piece of a dock that had been thrown onto the street, he said.
“If he couldn’t figure out how to get [the log] out of the way, we would have been dead in the water right out here,” Klein said, describing Sandy in three-stage phases consisting of preparation, operation and recovery.
During the operation phase, or the day Sandy hit, the city was getting about 500 calls a minute and the phones at the GBFD never stopped ringing, he said.
Volunteer firefighters began prioritizing calls ranging from rescuing people from their flooded homes to transformer explosions.
“It’s emotionally draining afterwards,” Klein said. “When you’re in the moment, it’s like ‘Ok, what’s next?’ ”
“At one point I was like, ‘I’ve got to take a break, because I cannot do this anymore,’ he said. “Physically, it took a toll on me.”
The GBFD – also referred to as the Vollies in the community – sandbagged several buildings before the storm, including Resurrection Roman Catholic Church, 2331 Gerritsen Ave., at the request of the church’s pastor, Klein said.
The day Sandy hit all residents in Gerritsen Beach lost power and many turned to Resurrection church – or the school attached to it – as a safe haven, said Resurrection Catholic Church employee Joseph Lynch.
The church, which Klein describes as the base of the operation, is where the Vollies brought people they rescued and helped organize the space, which was filled with hundreds of people and their pets.
“Everybody in Gerritsen Beach knows if there’s a problem come to Resurrection,” Lynch said. The Vollies helped rescue people who were “jumping out of windows to get here.”
The reason people call the Vollies first and not the city fire department is because they know them personally and feel comfortable with them, Lynch said, who was born and raised in the community.
“I would say that the Vollies in so many ways they enrich the community through what they do,” Lynch said. “We feel secure because we know they are there … We call up the Vollies and we know they will help us.”
The history of Brooklyn’s only volunteer fire department traces back to the 1920s when the first settlers in Gerittsen Beach found they couldn’t rely on the city for fire rescue because it took too long for them to get there, said GBFD Lt. Dan Cavanagh – a Gerritsen Beach native.
“If you look at the map, we’re so far away from the city center,” Cavanagh said.
The population in Gerritsen Beach was expanding rapidly at the time with a large population living in the neighborhood before the city could allocate funds to start a fire department, Klein said.
This prompted the community to take matters into their own hands with the volunteer fire department incorporating in 1933, Cavanagh said.
The Gerritsen Beach Fire Department is one of 10 volunteer fire departments in the New York City area. It’s the only one in Brooklyn, with six in Queens and the rest in Staten Island and the Bronx.
Volunteering at the GBFD has been a tradition in the community for many years, said Klein, whose two uncles each devoted their time as Vollies in the community. Klein’s sister Micaela Klein also volunteers at the fire department as a dispatcher.
Tradition over the years has been that as soon as a boy turns 18 he would enroll with the Vollies, Klein said.
“It’s the right of passage – that’s what my uncle called it,” Klein said. “You’re 18, you’re a Vollie.”
The fire department now has 15 volunteer firefighters. With the neighborhood diversifying, and new faces moving into the area, GBFD recently began accepting people from outside the community to join.
“We’re trying to experiment with expanding our membership area,” Cavanagh said, to which one of GBFD’s newest members Aaron Hale, a Long Island native now living in Sheapshead Bay jokingly said, “I’m an experiment.”
Four members of the department now live outside Gerritsen Beach. Only one of the four was there last year during Sandy though so volunteers were very much rescuing their own.
Hale, who joined two months ago, always wanted to become a volunteer firefighter because he’s from Long Island, where he said volunteer fire departments are common.
“All my friends from Long Island are volunteer firefighters,” Hale said. “Now, I kind of fit in with them.”
Newly enrolled volunteer firefighters have to go through mandatory training at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy in Old Bethpage, N.Y., Klein said, adding that firefighters are given two years to complete the training.
The training consists of 30 hours of academic schooling and 66 hours of hands-on training, where firefighters are taught how to properly use breathing packs, deal with house fires, among other things, Klein said.
“I can’t sit at home late at night and know that there’s a call and know that there’s people from here doing it,” Klein said. “Someone has called us for help and it’s very hard for me to sit back and say, ‘I’ll let someone else do it.’ You can’t just do that, especially when you get to know the people here.”
People in the community are still recovering from the storm and the effects have hit residents hard not only financially but also emotionally, he said.
“If it happened again, I think people would just give up,” Klein said.