NEW HAVEN, NY – A couple weeks after his 18th birthday, Norm Fischer joined the New Haven Volunteer Fire Department.
He has actively participated in the department for the past 60 years. He’s held many offices, including chief, and still responds to alarms.
In honor of this amazing accomplishment, members of the department are holding an open house in his honor on Saturday (March 2) from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Eis House in Mexico. They’ll be making a number of presentations around 7:30 p.m.
He joined when he turned 18; but he was actually involved form the very beginning of the department, even though he wasn’t old enough to join.
Recently, the veteran firefighter sat down with Oswego County Today to look back on his career and evolution of the department.
“It all started in 1946. Salisbury’s Tavern used to be a working farm. In January or February of 1946, the barn burned. The town had no fire protection back then,” Fischer explained. “Mexico (VFD) came with one truck and 500 gallons of water. What does that do on a burning barn with hay inside?”
And then in 1948, the Legion started talking about forming a fire company, he said.
A couple men came and gave a presentation; they invited all the men in the town to attend, Fischer said, adding, “And of course, being a kid, I had to be there and see what was going on.”
“After the presentation, whoever was running the meeting, I can’t remember who, said ‘I think we are going to listen to this and think about it and come back and meet again.’ But these two guys said, ‘No you are going to do it tonight.’ This was the first Wednesday in April. And before they left, they had a slate of line officers and a slate of business officers,” Fischer recalls.
They decided they were going to canvass the town for money. That’s where their first funds came from.
Somehow, they found out there was a firetruck for sale in (Freeport) Long Island – a 1926 vehicle.
“My father and another guy went down to look at the truck. They had their money in their hands. They bought it and they drove it home. It was a wide open truck, like they used to be. Nothing up front except for the windshield and that’s all you had,” he said. “By Memorial Day 1948 we had the truck in the parade all labeled and ready to go. That’s where it all started.”
He was just a kid back then, so he couldn’t go on the firetruck.
However, he played a role in helping the new department get going.
“For calling in fires, they established three phones. There was one at the store and one at Lindsays’ house next door to ours and one at our house. The owner of the Shepherd Estate was very fire conscious. He had hydrants all around the house; he had fire hoses in the house and a siren to alert people that there was a fire,” he said.
The department got permission to use that siren.
“There was a network of women. When they heard the siren, they had a list of five names to call and they got right on the phones and called them. Back then, I was the one who had to run over to the estate and tell them to start the siren,” Fischer noted. “Eventually we had buttons in both our houses to activate the siren. The truck was kept at the town barn. We had keys to the town barn. So, I’d run to the town barn and unlock the door and open it for them.”
In 1953, he turned 18 in January and joined the fire company in February. They named him secretary, “mainly because nobody else wanted the job,” he laughed. “Been going at it ever since.”
From 1948 to the early 1950s, there were no radios (like today’s firefighters carry). Everything was done by phone.
“I think it was around 1950 the county installed a radio system and every company got one radio. It was in one truck. There were no portables,” Fischer said. “If you had the money, you could buy a second radio. At that point we didn’t have any money. Eventually, about the time I joined, they bought a second radio.”
Firefighting runs in the family. His three brothers and father are all charter members. His mother and sister were charter members of the auxiliary.
In 1955, the department decided to have its first field day.
“They had talked about buying a new truck. And they said, ‘how can we do that, we don’t have any money?’ So they had a field day and it went pretty good, for them times. And so in 1956 we got our first new firetruck,” he said.
They financed it for 10 years but had it paid off by 1961. So, they bought a second new truck. The field days used to help a lot, it made a big difference, bringing in needed money, he explained.
In 1957, he was drafted into the Army. After he got back from the Army, he worked his way up through the line officers positions in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1974 he became the second assistant chief and in 1975 he was the first assistant chief.
Also, 1975 was the year they built the current fire station along Route 104. He became chief the following year.
The little building that is for sale next to the town hall was the original New Haven fire hall.
“We sold that building to the town, but we were still using it. In 1976, the weekend of Mexico’s field days, the town told us they had a chance to rent the building. So we were all together for the field days in Mexico and decided the next Wednesday we were going to move. And that Wednesday night, by midnight, we were here,” he said. “Everybody pitched in and we got all moved in here.”
In 1977 an addition to the building was completed. That’s when they started having weddings, pancake breakfast and that sort of thing, he added.
“In 1979, we decided we had enough money so we ordered a new truck,” he said. “The new truck was delivered in February of 1981. By my choice, that year, I went out as chief. I was working at Nine Mile, all sorts of crazy hours (as a mechanic over at FitzPatrick). I was there basically from the time it came out of the ground. I was there all through construction and went back for two years doing odd jobs. In 1978 I went there doing maintenance. I just couldn’t carry on (as I wanted to as chief) with all those crazy hours so I got out.”
He’s held every office here but treasurer and is currently a trustee.
“So basically, I’ve been some sort of an officer here for the biggest share of my life,” he said.
A barn fire (1981) on the corner of routes 6A and 1 is among the most challenging he ever fought.
“There’s just a house and garage there now. Where the garage sits, there was a barn. The barn burned and it was only a very short distance to the house. We saved the house,” he said.
In 1982, there was a bad house fire in the village.
“It burned on the Saturday evening of Lacona’s field days (the furthest away). So nobody was here. Our guys came on the truck, with two people, and there was one guy waiting there. They called Mexico. They came with two trucks and two drivers. They called Scriba. Scriba came with one truck and just a driver,” he said. “So, manpower was frightful until the guys got back from Lacona. It was a real challenge. I was up on (a neighbor’s) roof shooting water across over onto the fire.”
The first fire after the company was formed was up on Johnson Road. And, they had no equipment. All they could do was stand there and watch it burn.
“Another very challenging one was Taber’s barn. When you go up Soper Mills Road and go onto Darrow Road, there’s a house sitting way up on the hill. In 1954 Hurricane Hazel came through, and that barn burned. The winds were carrying flame right toward the house. We saved the house. We actually laid hose from the top of the hill all the way down to the mill pond and pumped water out of the pond,” he said. “They are the three that really stand out in my mind. We have had lots of fires, some bad ones, but they’re the ones that were really challenges because of the conditions.”
Is he going to retire?
“Who knows? Like I say I am a trustee. I’m going to stay active. We have come a long ways here from where we started,” he said. “This building made a big difference because we can do breakfast and dinners. Over the years, I’ve worked with a great bunch of guys and women as well. We have had women in the fire company since the middle of the 1970s. This really is one big fraternity, a family if you will. Everybody helps each other; we look out for one another – all the volunteers.”
In 1955, the truck cost $13,000. The one they purchased a few years ago had a price tag of more than $400,000. The pump panel is located on the top of the vehicle instead of the side. It gets the operator out of the road and he can basically see what’s going on all around him.
“Probably the two biggest innovations in fire service are the tank trucks, you got to have water, and the portable tanks that you can set up beside the trucks and dump the water in so you don’t have to keep hauling it. They’re probably two of the bigger innovations in the whole fire service,” he said. “Central Square was the first company in Oswego County to have a tank truck. Then we were second and Mexico was right behind us.”
The department has a bright future, he said, because of all the dedicated men and women who volunteer.