OSWEGO, NY – Oswego County Deputy Fire Coordinator Jack Cottet joined the Cleveland Volunteer Fire Department at age 18 after being around the fire service since age 10.
Fifty years later, Cottet is still going strong.
“I’m riding high and I’m not going to quit,” he told Oswego County Fire Advisory Board and others at a meeting at which his 50th anniversary in the fire service was celebrated.
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” said County Fire Coordinator Don Forbes.
During his tenure, Cottet has been a State Fire Instructor since 1974, a fire science instructor at Auburn Community College (now Cayuga Community College) and Onondaga Community College, and a Deputy Fire Coordinator since 2001. He has been a member of the Cleveland department continuously, having maintained his membership while attending college and spending his early employment in California.
“He was first elected a chief officer of the Cleveland VFD in 1972 and served in some capacity as a chief until 2011,” Forbes said.
As a county coordinator, Cottet has worked under four coordinators – Homer Bowman, Bill Denery, John Hinds and Forbes.
He’s been a county fire instructor since 2008 (in addition to his state service) and a member of the Fire Investigation Team since its inception.
At the Fire Advisory Board meeting, Cottet was presented with commendations by Forbes and by Fire Advisory Board President Deborah Kite, as well as by Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) David Jacobowitz of Whitesboro, NY.
“This was supposed to be a surprise, but Jack noticed the FASNY vehicle in the parking lot and figured out something was up,” Forbes noted.
Kite also presented a plaque to Cottet’s wife, Andrea, noting that her support of her husband was invaluable.
“It’s been a great ride and I’m still riding,” Cottet said, thanking those present for their recognition.
“Jack’s real passion is Water Supply Operations and Pump Operations,” Forbes told those assembled at the fire advisory board meeting. “He is sometimes referred to as ‘Father Water.’”
Cottet has published many articles on water supply in several firefighting trade magazines and has taught seminars in New York, New England and Pennsylvania.
He is currently working with a colleague in the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control on revisions to the state Water Supply Operations program.
“My mission is getting firefighters to recognize the importance of water” in fighting fires, Cottet said in an interview following the presentations. “Water supply and having enough of that to quench the fire is the key.”
Often hydrant systems are inadequate for the buildings they’re supposed to protect and water must be supplied from other sources.
At a recent fire in the county, he noted, a tanker operation had to be conducted right next to a hydrant because the hydrant was of inadequate capacity.
His mission is foremost to make firefighting better and safer.
When he became a New York State fire instructor, Cottet said, “I began to learn how much I enjoyed teaching people to be good firefighters.”
Firefighting has changed dramatically since the early 1960s, he noted, with departments having modern equipment but few members.
Also, he said, “the philosophy of firefighting used to be ‘get in the building, even when it’s extremely dangerous.’ The philosophy today is life safety comes first, and that ours (rescue personnel’s) comes first, not the victim’s.”
“Ongoing training is the absolute foundation of what we do,” he continued. “(If) you learned something 10 years ago, I guarantee something has changed and you need to be going back.”
“Training, training, training” is one of three pieces of advice Cottet would give to firefighters looking toward the future.
He would also tell them “try to get along with each other” and “don’t quit.”
“We’ve lost a lot of people for one reason or another. Many are not with us anymore because they got angry … We should all be in firefighting for the benefit of the person who called 911,” he stressed. “We need to set our egos and department pride aside … We’re getting better at controlling that, but we still need to improve.”
Volunteer firefighting has changed as society has changed, Cottet noted.
“For the first 30 years (of my career), we didn’t have to worry about finding firefighters. About 20 years ago it began to slow down, and now I’ve seen it almost stop … It’s a combination of economy and more demands on people. People have less available time” and expect more rewards for what they do in life. There’s a tremendous personnel shortage now (in volunteer firefighting),” Cottet continued. “We’re at the point where we use one quarter of the 32 departments in the county on every serious building fire – we sometimes need eight to 10 departments to put even a minimal crew on a fire.”
But for those who do serve, it’s a very rewarding experience.
Volunteer fire departments still “foster community spirit and a feeling of accomplishment among the volunteers,” Cottet said. “It’s a brotherhood” – one that he’s not leaving anytime soon.