PATERSON, NJ- Whether it’s the Great Falls that gave birth to the American Industrial Revolution, or the classroom that gave rise to STEM education, Paterson is steeped in history.
On Friday, February 16, the city hit another historic milestone with the day marking 100 consecutive years of service to the Paterson Fire Department by three generations of the Hancock family.
TAPinto Paterson sat down with Deputy Chief Kevin Hancock, who joined the Department on April 11, 1989, as he shared his family’s story of fighting fires and saving lives over the course of a century.
While much has changed in the decades since, including the disappearance of the horse drawn response units that the eldest Hancock would have utilized, many aspects, including the reliance on colleagues for safety and support, Deputy Chief Hancock said, remains as strong as ever.
Edward served for nearly 40 years and was still an active firefighter when he passed away in 1956, but not before having the chance to serve with his son Edward J. for just over two years. While Deputy Chief Hancock never new his grandfather, he recounted hearing stories of his role as Chief’s Aide, and of a particular time when legendary New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio visited Paterson, later sending two tickets to a game as thanks for driving the Chief’s car, known as a “Gig”, that transported him through the city’s streets.
Deputy Chief Hancock still has fond memories of visiting the old fire headquarters on Van Houten Street, complete with a pole that seemed to him, as a child, to extend from the sky to the bay where the trucks were kept. His father, who also served for nearly 40 years, was a “great family guy” and a “legendary” ping pong player, often challenging other firefighters with a dustpan instead of a racquet, he shared.
And while he grew up wanting to be a firefighter, “like most kids,” his father never pushed him to join the fire department, Deputy Chief Hancock said. Once on the job, after a short stint as a police officer, although only serving alongside his father when response to large fires caused their tours to overlap, he made sure to hold himself to a high standard, never getting into a position where he’d require preferential treatment.
He knew his father, who also achieved the rank of Deputy Chief, ran a “tight ship” but was “well respected. Perhaps most importantly, his father was always there if a question came up, but gave him “space to develop,” he said, “same as the last generation.”
With his 29th anniversary as a firefighter quickly approaching, Deputy Chief Hancock still vividly recalls being “caught off guard” with how much knowledge was involved in the job and coming to the realization that firefighting was only a small part of the job, when considered in the context of the dizzying array of calls they often respond to. His first “interior fire was a reality check,” he said, as he shared his memory of advancing into the burning building on his hands and knees, feeling the intense heat, especially around his ears, and having zero visibility as the smoke enveloped the structure.
Feeling “totally dependent” on his captain’s “experience and expertise” the now highly experienced firefighter recalls questioning his decision to join the fire department, choosing later to “persevere, continue to train, learn and acquire experience,” until it was he who was “leading the charge into the fire.”
Though danger and uncertainty is always a part of the job, Deputy Chief Hancock also recalled the inferno at the old Meyers Brothers Department Store on Main Street in 1991, that claimed the life of Paterson Firefighter John Nicosia. Only a year older than Hancock, his loss on the job served a reminder of the “dangers firefighters face on a daily basis. The Paterson Fire Department, he recounted, has been hit by 28 line of duty deaths, each one a firefighter who “came to work like we do each day, but did not get to go home to their families.
Like many career firefighters in the region, Deputy Chief Hancock was deployed to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. With every Paterson firefighter volunteering for the service, they worked in shifts over several days to support their FDNY colleagues who “entered the Towers knowing that there was a good chance they might not make it out.” And, for 343 of them it was their last call. “They were heroes in our eyes, if there was anything we could do to assist we were all in.”
Considering the differences in firefighting in the times of his grandfather and father, Deputy Chief Hancock surmises that technology has been a “double-edged sword.” While the equipment and tools they have at every scene makes firefighting safer and more efficient, the construction industry has introduced innovations that “are not firefighter friendly.” New construction is built of lightweight material, more prone to collapse than “traditional construction that can withstand fire conditions for 20 minutes,” as opposed to the 5 minutes many newer buildings can last. Additional toxins found in new construction have given rise to harmful exposure with long term effects, and energy efficient doors and windows “significantly impact flashover and backdraft conditions.”
Even with changing technology one “constant” remains according to Deputy Chief Hancock. “Firefighters continue to take calculated risks on a daily basis to protect the community they serve.”
In addition to serving in the same job as his grandfather and father, Deputy Chief Hancock includes all of the firefighters he has worked with as “extended family.”
“As different as our backgrounds are we form a close, cohesive, bond that only a fellow firefighter would understand.” These bonds go beyond the “on-duty heroics” and include the outpouring of support they give to each other when a family member is ill or injured, or during any personal crisis.
Prior to letting the interview end Deputy Chief Hancock took time to thank his wife, Pat, and son, Kevin. “Without their support and understanding,” he said, his career, that has caused a lot of missed holidays, birthdays, and family events, “wouldn’t have been possible.”
Perhaps echoing the sentiments of generations past, as well as offering his own, Deputy Chief Hancock concluded by saying that he has “been fortunate to work with great bosses and great firefighters.”
And, with his family at home and his fellow firefighters a floor below his office in Paterson Fire Headquarters, he’s “been blessed to have to have two great families and two places to call home.”
TAPintoPaterson extends our thanks for Thomas Dayspring, www.PatersonFireHistory.com, for his assistance and support of this special article.