Unsung Heroes

The Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol has been around for eighty-two years and has saved the town millions of dollars, yet many people have never heard of them



Photograph by Visko Hatfield

Before 9/11 we used to think of heroes as larger than life figures, known for noble deeds and superhuman powers. Now we go with a quieter—and more meaningful—definition: Someone who goes along, day after day, doing difficult and unglamorous work with no thought of reward or acclaim. The twenty active members of the all-volunteer Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol, who range in age from eighteen to seventy-one, fall into that category. They operate out of Station No. 2, the venerable red brick Cos Cob firehouse, which houses four separate organizations: the volunteers and paid firefighters of the Cos Cob Fire Department, the Ladies’ Auxiliary (a canteen service offering food, hot coffee and TLC during emergencies) and the Patrol. “We’re the ones nobody knows about,” says the organization’s president, Joe Kaliko, a retired patent attorney who likes to call himself the oldest rookie. “These guys went on over 1,400 calls last year and nobody’s ever heard of them.”

 

 

The Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol, a.k.a. the fire police, handles traffic and emergency scene control, provides salvage work at house and business fires, and in numerous other ways augments the work of the fire and police departments. They cover all of Greenwich, not just Cos Cob (sometimes even responding to calls in Stamford and Port Chester). The term fire police dates from early nineteenth century Manhattan, when foot patrols roamed the streets and alerted the fire department by swinging noisy wooden ratchets. The Cos Cob squad, which former Selectman Lin Lavery called “a treasure,” is the last fully operating fire police patrol in Connecticut. In 2006, for example, they responded to 1,421 calls, thereby providing some 6,680 man-hours to the town free of charge. “We protect the protectors,” Joe says proudly. “We secure the scene for the police, for the firemen, for GEMS and for utility workers. Going toward danger becomes instinctive for us, versus running from danger, which is the normal human response.”

On a sunny fall morning I sat down at the conference table in the Fire Police’s upstairs office, where the walls are thick with framed photos of past members and service awards, with Captain William Christian Anderson Jr., Chief Brian Kelly and President Joe Kaliko. Christian, who runs his family’s business of truck and construction equipment repair, is a third-generation firefighter who went on over 1,000 calls for the Patrol last year. Brian is the Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Coordinator for the Greenwich Fire Department, and a fourth-generation firefighter who traces his Greenwich lineage back to the original Mead settlers. Joe’s interest grew out of taking the Civilian Police Academy course four years ago and his desire to give to the community in an active way, without, he says drily, “having to climb a one-hundred-foot ladder.”

For Christian and Brian service is a longstanding family tradition. Christian’s father was a former chief of police, and Brian’s grandfather Aubrey Mead Sr. was a chief officer of the Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol, and his great-great grandfather William Rich was the town’s first chief of police. The rank and file, however, come from all walks of life and include an exterminator, a civil engineer, a lifeguard, college students, a retired IBM executive and the vice-chairman of a hedge fund. “The demographics,” Brian comments, “are wacky.”

The bond between Brian, Christian and Joe is strong and rooted in shared experience, so the reminiscences come thick and fast: Brian’s memories of surviving a house fire as a child, which gave him, he says, an understanding of the devastating stress experienced by the victims; the time Christian asked “newbie” Joe to wash the truck and Joe called Splash! carwash; or Joe’s memorable first call, which was a deer carcass floating in the Mianus River. “My idea was to just push it to the other side of the river, which I thought was Stamford,” he says, grinning. “I was new in town.”

The interview ended, abruptly, when cell phones chirped, beepers buzzed, and the firehouse siren started whooping at blast level. “Sorry,” Christian apologized, “we have to go,” and he and Joe were off. It was a typical call. A transformer had exploded on Cat Rock Road, and a tree and the pole for a 4,800-volt primary line had come down. “Everything the line touched turned to fire!” Joe reported later (the heat from a downed line can literally melt asphalt to molten glass, says Brian). “Lots of smoke and flame but no one was injured. Christian took one side of the incident, I took the other, and we safely turned people around—the road was completely blocked by the downed line and fire and police apparatus.” (Their work that morning freed two police officers for other duties.) “It was a bit scary,” says Joe, “since parts of the live primary were sagging and could have come down on us. But all ended safely after about an hour and a half.”

The Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol was established in November of 1927, by a group from the Cos Cob Volunteer Fire Company who identified a need for both salvage and scene control at fire calls. The patrol’s first truck was used and cost all of $750. Today their main vehicle is a blue and white Pierce heavy-rescue fire truck, purchased by the Town of Greenwich for roughly half a million dollars. (The Patrol raised the money themselves for their new $100,000 fire utility vehicle, and fundraising continues for future projects and day-to-day Patrol expenses.) The Pierce fire truck has been hit several times on I-95, no doubt saving the lives of the EMTs and firemen on the other side of it. “It’s like hitting a wall,” says Brian. A special license, and training, is required to drive the truck. “You start with parking lot exercises,” explains Christian, “where the worst thing you can do is run over a traffic cone.”

They like to joke around, but the work these men do requires nerves of steel, an even temperament, and a kind of selflessness. While members who are certified firefighters enter and help fight fires, the list of services the patrol provides is long and varied. Patrol members specialize in emergencies caused by water, including damage from storms and flooding, burst or thawed pipes and the water used to put out fires. They also shut off gas or electricity before utility companies arrive on the scene; maintain the traffic flow at accidents so emergency and ambulance workers can get through; provide first responder skills like CPR and on-site support for firefighters, such as changing their air packs; offer light search and rescue scenes at night; perform water and ice rescues for both the two-legged and four-legged. In addition, the patrol provides backup services for the police and fire chiefs, such as additional security and presence for Presidential visits, the Fourth of July fireworks at Tod’s Point or the annual Homecoming bonfire at Greenwich High School.

“We’re different from other fire police who tend to be retired firefighters and basically go to fires and direct traffic,” says Brian Kelly. “Salvage work is really our specialty—we save family valuables, removing things from buildings because smoke and fire really does the most damage. And water is always an issue. Originally the whole idea behind salvage was that insurance companies would have fewer payouts for claims if stuff could be protected. We wear red helmets,” he explains parenthetically, “to distinguish us from firefighters, so when you see us at a scene you know why we’re there.”

“We actually help keep insurance rates down,” Joe adds, “because we’re focused on saving insurable property. And also things that families cherish.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that they just drag everything out onto the lawn. Salvage is done inside a burning structure, often in smoke-filled darkness. “As the hose and rescue teams are going in—venting the roof, say—we go in below the fire,” Brian says. “We’ll roll up rugs, gather furniture and pictures off the walls, make ridgepoles out of throw rugs and then throw a tarp over it, which helps protect everything from water and smoke damage. We will do that all through the house and eventually drill holes through the floor— the water goes down to the basement and can later be pumped out, or we vent water out the windows with chutes. Salvage is a science and an art; you need to have a lot of right-brain thinkers because you have to make decisions instantly.”

Volunteers are always welcome, and the Fire Police Patrol is enthusiastically open to men and women of all ages. “You can get the training you need,” says Joe, “and contribute to the level of your ability, or the time you have to give.” Although the Town of Greenwich does offset the cost of health insurance for the Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol and offers up to a $1,000 discount on property or car taxes for qualifying members, for Joe Kaliko and his buddies that’s not the point. “This is something money can’t buy,” he says seriously. “It’s the satisfaction of giving back, and making a difference.”

For more information on volunteering or to make a donation, visit the Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol at www.ccfpp.org.

 

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