SOMERS, N.Y. - The Somers Volunteer Fire Department is the largest volunteer fire department in Westchester County, covering an area of 33 square miles and serving over 20,000 people. But it wasn’t always that way.
For many decades, Somers relied on nearby communities—Katonah, Croton Falls, Yorktown Heights, Goldens Bridge and Mahopac—in case of need. But in 1931, retired New York City firefighter Herman Geidel got together with a few friends and organized a local fire brigade. It was based in the Shenorock section of Somers, partly because that area had the densest population, and partly because it was the only source of a public water supply system.
Firefighter Fred Whipple, a 51-year veteran, confesses he “always wanted to be a fireman.” His colleague, Ed Byrnes, concurs. Whipple adds, “It’s a great life if you want excitement and camaraderie and want to save the town millions of dollars.”
Whipple recalls that in his early years, “there was no Heritage Hills. There were only about 6,000 people in town. We had to find water—from ponds, lakes and swimming pools. Now we have fire hydrants.”
Byrnes remembers a couple of historic arsons. In one case, a woman “wanted sympathy from her husband,” he said, “so she set fire to the house.” Her three children were inadvertently trapped inside. She was tried, convicted and sent to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, he added.
“Then there was the Golden Nugget over on Route 118,” Byrnes continues. “It was around 1981. The firemen used to like to go there after work. They had a good country western band. I lived nearby. I looked up the hill and thought, ‘That’s not a brush fire, that’s the Nugget.’ We couldn’t save it. The fire was started by somebody who got kicked out a few nights earlier.”
One incident that sticks in Whipple’s mind is the day he had to climb into his scuba diving gear in a vain attempt to extricate two men trapped inside a commercial septic tank they were cleaning in Baldwin Place. They’d been overcome by dry cleaning fumes.
The Somers fire department even played a role during the 9/11 crisis. A 1950s agreement with the city of New York, originally created to combat a potential nuclear attack, sprang into effect when the fire departments of Westchester County rushed to the Bronx and spent 24 hours on standby in case of additional threats.
Whipple treasures the friendships he’s made in the Somers fire department. “I taught fifth grade at the intermediate school for years. Now I enjoy seeing my students showing up as volunteers.”
Byrnes says, “They still have a hard time not calling him ‘Mr. Whipple.’”
The men agree that it’s exciting to be a volunteer firefighter. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” says Byrnes. “The ‘tones’ go off and you feel a rush right away. Everything speeds up.”
Whipple adds, “If it’s a structure fire. If it turns out to be a false alarm, like somebody’s smoke alarm, your adrenaline goes right down again.”
So far this year, the fire department has answered over 1,800 calls. In addition to various kinds of trucks, tankers and pumpers, its apparatus now includes ambulances, a 95-foot aerial tower ladder, a “Jaws of Life” vehicle and a Polaris ATV.
The department is always glad to see new volunteers. For further information, go to somersvfd.com.