SOMERS, N.Y. - In these extraordinary times, across a land gone housebound, firefighters in shiny red rigs are celebrating birthdays of the young—and sometimes not so young—with socially distant, appropriately noisy drive-by caravans.

Coronavirus concerns have put traditional celebrations, featuring plenty of friends and extended family members, temporarily on hold. So, with flashing lights and wailing sirens worthy of an old-fashioned fireman’s parade, local departments are toasting those denied their due by restrictions on group get-togethers. 

“Hopefully, this will be one bright spot for an otherwise strange time in life,” Croton Falls Fire Chief Sean Partenio said last weekend as North Salem sheltered in place and he readied his members’ “house calls” at 16 local addresses. 

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Already, the chief has requests for some three-dozen visits in April, for now at least the defining time period for seeking a drive-by salute. “Some of the birthdays were way at the end of the month,” Partenio said, “so we just separated them.” That averted an overly long stretch of parade duty for his volunteers. “And those kids will get a shout-out closer to their actual birthday, rather than a couple of weeks prior,” he said.

While the rootin’-tootin’ parades are meant to cheer party-deprived youngsters, nobody’s strictly scrutinizing ages. As Partenio puts it, “If you happen to be slightly older than a middle-school kid, I don’t think we’re going to say no.”

Goldens Bridge firefighters, for their part, take it further still, specifically including older residents in their rollicking celebrations. 

“Our elderly population—the most vulnerable to COVID-19—has been isolated for weeks,” Fire Chief James McManus noted. “We want them to know they are not forgotten as this government stay-at-home directive continues into the foreseeable future.”

Not surprisingly, the cavalcade of sleek firefighting machinery has quickly caught the public’s attention. In Somers this past weekend, it took two processions, one out of the Lincolndale firehouse and the other from Granite Springs, to fulfill a score of drive-by requests.

Calling the public’s reception positive, a “home run,” Assistant Fire Chief Jon Mackey said, “The kids seemed to love it.” 
The next day, social media appeared to endorse Mackey’s impression. 

“We got lots of messages,” he said, “about how excited and thankful everyone was for it.”

In most of last weekend’s celebrations, about a half-dozen official fire department vehicles—as well as assorted civilian cars, present by design or seeming serendipity—rolled past the home of each birthday boy or girl. A department’s specific equipment lineup might have varied, but it was bound to feature the iconic red engines, ladder trucks and chiefs’ cars that are the backbone of every community’s firefighting fleet.

The parades wended their way over familiar byways, bathed in the brilliant sunshine of Saturday’s bright-blue early spring sky.

“A lot of people were out, walking around,” Mackey recalled. “So, as we were going through the route, people were waving and cheering. It was very uplifting for our members. It was good for them, with the COVID-19 going on, just to get out there and do something that was fun.” 

Even as they took part in fun runs, however, the volunteers maintained social distancing guidelines, for themselves and for those on the receiving end of the celebration. And they remained ready to perform their principal job on a moment’s notice, the chiefs said.

In Croton Falls, Partenio said, “If there was a call, we’d have no problem peeling off whatever manpower we need to go and assess the emergency. Obviously, that’s the priority over the birthday parades.”

Whether or not a real emergency calls the firefighters, the day’s not all fun and sirens, as McManus, the Goldens Bridge fire chief, points out. “It’s an extensive effort every time we leave the firehouse with our trucks and equipment,” he said. “When we return, it takes close to an hour to decontaminate the vehicles, and department members practice safe distancing throughout the process.”

Nevertheless, the chief made clear, Goldens Bridge firefighters will go to great lengths to cheer residents at either extreme of the age spectrum.

“Birthdays are a special day in everyone’s life—but especially for the children and seniors of our community,” McManus observed. “Whether we are kids or kids at heart, everyone is fascinated with fire trucks—and in this case, they will put a huge smile on the faces of children and seniors alike at a time when we all could use something to smile about.”

Edward Brancati, who chairs the Goldens Bridge Fire District Board of Commissioners, agrees. “Hopefully,” he said, “this will be a delightful birthday memory and one that will help them get through these difficult times.”  

Smiles surely outnumber less positive public reactions to the sirens and other commotion. Still, Brancati suggests giving neighbors a friendly heads-up before any drive-by contingent makes its presence abundantly apparent. 

So, if you hear the shrill scream of fire trucks, uncomfortably close to home, remember they might simply be marking someone’s special day, down the block, across the street or in your own living room.

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