Tompkins Weekly

Sounding the alarm

Firefighters warn of threats to your home and to our town and city departments

The Vordtadt family of Dryden visits Dryden’s Neptune Hose Company and Dryden Ambulance Open House Oct. 15. From left to right: Dryden Fire Captain Ken Vorstadt, Joan, 2, Anna, 4, Lucy, 5 months, and Emily. Photo by Jaime Cone Hughes

October is Fire Prevention Month, and local fire departments are warning of a new danger that has caused fires in residences all across New York state: lithium batteries found in e-bikes and scooters.

“We are seeing nationally more and more incidents of those batteries overheating,” said Rob Covert, fire chief for the Ithaca Fire Department, in an interview conducted recently.  

The batteries can be extremely dangerous, and they are just one of the potential fire hazards that firefighters are warning the public about this October. In honor of this month of outreach and education, several local fire chiefs shared their expert safety advice and gave the latest updates from their respective departments.

Volunteer departments are eager to encourage people to get involved, even if it is in ways they had not considered before.

The Ithaca Fire Department also shared several changes they are looking forward to in 2024.

More staff and a new home for Ithaca Fire Department

The Ithaca Fire Department is in the midst of planning its new East Hill station, which will replace the current Ithaca Fire Department Station 2, which was built in the 1960s.

The new station will be located at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Dryden Road.

The department hopes to start construction within the next two months, Covert said.

“The new station is designed to meet our organization’s needs much better, and [it] will also be built around firefighters’ health and safety issues,” Covert said, explaining that the new station will have a clean side and a dirty side.

“There are a lot of health risks with firefighting, and if we can separate the dirty turnout gear from the other parts of the station, there are lots of positive impacts for firefighter health and safety,” Covert said.

Replacing, rather than updating, the original firehouse will allow the department to continue operating continuously during construction, and the old station, located on College Avenue, is slated to be purchased by a local developer, Covert said, adding, “The current location for the station has been identified for different types of economic development.”

The department also hopes to add three new firefighters to its staff, increasing the number of firefighters from 51 to 54. This request is in Acting Ithaca City Mayor Laura Lewis’ proposed City of Ithaca budget, pending approval.

“We’re excited that the mayor recognized the need and put it in her budget for the [Common] Council’s consideration,” Covert said.

Visitors to the Neptune Hose Company (Dryden Fire Department) see the emergency vehicles up close at the department’s open house Oct. 15. Photo by Jaime Cone Hughes

A vital need for volunteers

Dryden Fire Chief Mark Bell said the Dryden volunteer fire department, also known as the Neptune Hose Co #1, is well supported financially. “We’re fortunate that funding is not as much of a problem,” Bell said. “We just need the personnel to do it.”  

“Everybody is busy in their personal lives, and not everyone has the time to give back and become a firefighter, EMT or paramedic,” he said. “I don’t want to say we are in desperate need, but we kind of are.”

Other departments are experiencing similar issues.

“We’re in the same boat as everybody else,” said Brad George, Lansing Fire Department chief. “The volume of calls goes up, and the volunteer levels go down. It’s a national struggle.”

As with most local fire departments in Tompkins County, the Dryden and Lansing fire departments are fully volunteer.

“When we go out in the middle of the night, we do not get compensated, but we do it because we feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Bell said.

But you don’t have to be willing to run into a structure fire to help out.

“There is so much behind-the-scenes stuff that has to happen to make the operation work,” Bell said. The department could use help with administrative tasks such as ordering supplies, as well as volunteers to help out with public events and the Junior Academy that the department hosts for children every year.

In Dryden, outreach is key, and the department hosted its open house on Oct. 15 from at the fire station, where the department welcomed other local fire departments, the New York State Police and the Tompkins County Sheriff to participate, highlighting the collaboration between the agencies.

 Dryden recently hired Chris O’Connor to serve as fire coordinator.

“His job is to get us the tools and the funding we need,” Bell said. In September, the department got word that it had received a $400,000 federal recruitment retention grant that is split between Dryden, Freeville and Etna.

The department, with O’Connor’s help, is now working on outreach strategies. Anyone with social media expertise would be very welcome to join the team, Bell said.

The Lansing Fire Department is making an effort to be more inclusive in its recruitment efforts.

“The stigma of the hometown fire department is that if you are not a hometown person, you might feel excluded,” George said., “But we’re trying to put the positive notion out there that anybody is welcome to join. If you walk into a room and you don’t know anybody it can be kind of intimidating, but if you want to join, we’ll welcome you in. Everybody’s welcome.”

The changing nature of modern firefighting

With modern safety measures, there are fewer large structure fires today than in the past. But as George said, call volume has not gone down.

“We do four or five structure fires a year,” the Lansing fire chief said, “but you have the medical calls, the car accidents that just keep going up.”

Local responders are stretched thin.

“Even the police are struggling,” George said. Fire departments are frequently tasked with calls that in the past would have gone to other agencies.

“We’ve had more drug overdoses and domestics and drug-related issues in the last five to 10 years than we ever had,” George said. “It weighs on your emergency services, and we’re getting burned out. All those extra EMT calls, mental health calls and things like that. That’s where the call volume has gone up, through those calls.”

More on the dangers of e-bikes and scooters

Do not charge an e-bike or scooter inside the house, and do not go for a cheaper battery when replacing the original.

“It’s one of those things we really encourage folks to pay attention to: is the battery and the product UL [Underwriter Laboratories] approved?” Covert said.

“If you have to replace the battery, what trends are showing us is the ones more likely to burn are the nonapproved, cheaper ones you can buy online.”

“If you witness an e-bike fire, it’s pretty eye-opening how fast they catch fire,” he added. “There are some scary videos out there, for sure.”

Heating hazards

With the rising cost of natural gas and heating oil, people are looking toward alternative heating sources, including portable electric units, which, “when used how they were designed, are very safe,” George said.

“But, where the problem starts is when people start plugging them into extension cords that are not rated for the amperage draw, and it fails.” Because of this, many fires started by portable heating units are actually started by the extension cord, not the heater itself.

“They have three-foot cords for a reason,” George said. “You start plugging small extension cords into them, they can heat up.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of smoke detectors

“We still preach checking smoke detectors monthly,” George said.

The disabling of smoke detectors continues to be one of the biggest issues firefighters encounter on a regular basis.

“They are very important, and they do work,” Bell said. “There are different kinds out there that are supposed to be less annoying and don’t trigger as fast.”

Something else that people may not know: smoke detectors, which have the date they were manufactured stamped on the back, have a lifespan and should be replaced after 10 years.

Other common causes of fires (and what to do if one starts in your home)

Grease fires are common but preventable, Bell said. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher near all cooking areas, and never leave food cooking unattended, he advised.

Security Mutual gives a donation, typically in the amount of $250, to volunteer departments when they respond to a fire at one of their policyholders’ residences. The insurance company also gives regular donations to volunteer fire departments locally and throughout the state.

“We want to make sure we hit every part of the state every five years,” Ron Wilder, president of Security Mutual Insurance Company of Ithaca. “Firefighters put themselves in harm’s way to protect us.”

His quick tip: keep a fire blanket in the kitchen to smother grease fires. 

Wilder’s father was also in the insurance business, and he instilled in Wilder an appreciation for firefighters and all they do. 

“They’re our local heroes, and they should be recognized,” Wilder said. “We try to come in after the fact and try to make people whole again, but it’s the ones who respond saving lives and saving properties that are the heroes.”

Have a plan

“Conduct exit drills in the home,” advised Covert. “If you practice it with your family, you should be able to do it quickly and efficiently. That speed is really important.”

Wilder suggested that people who have second-story bedrooms keep a rope ladder handy in case they need to escape out the window.

“Come up with a meeting place,” Bell said, “but do not agree to meet by the mailbox at the side of the road.”

“When our firetrucks are coming, we are too focused on the fire and seeing if the fire is visible. So much goes through our head when we’re pulling up to the scene,” Bell said.

“If you stand by the road to flag us down, especially in the dark, you may not be visible,” he said, adding, “and the cliché is, once you’re out, stay out.”

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