As COVID-19 severely impacted New York City, our Gerrittsen Beach Department faced an unparalleled challenge. Emergency calls surged, pushing the city’s first responders to their limits. FDNY then made an unprecedented request, asking volunteer departments like ours to step into the 911 system for an extended period. Without hesitation, we answered the call.
We not only assisted FDNY in covering the expansive City of New York but also kept a second ambulance operational for our local Gerrittsen Beach community. From medical emergencies to patient transport, we offered indispensable support to fellow first responders who were stretched thin.
Our sustained collaboration with FDNY during this critical time showcased the importance of unity, resilience, and collective responsibility in New York’s first responder community. As we move forward, the lessons learned and the bonds formed in this challenging period serve as a lasting testament to our unwavering commitment to serve and protect our community and city.
Department preparation for the storm began the day after our 90th anniversary celebration and installation dinner on October 20th. We made preliminary plans, hoping the storm would pass while preparing for the worst. We made sure all tools were checked, pumps operating, and the apparatus and generators were gassed up. Members even tarred part of the roof to ensure its stability. Sunday, October 28th the day before the storm, we began to sandbag the Memorial Hall and Resurrection Church. In discussions with Pastor Farrell of Resurrection Church, he allowed us to open and operate Resurrection School as a comfort center. Who knew we were going to have to operate it as a long term shelter?
Monday October 29th, The day of the storm, calls started to come in when the first tide began flooding basements. We turned off the gas and electric of these homes and advised the residents to go to higher ground. At that point we assumed that this would be as bad as the 1991 “hundred year storm” that occurred in Gerritsen Beach. After that first tide our emergency and non emergency lines did not stop ringing.
Because of the tidal surge, our dispatchers had to abandon the Firehouse but not before grabbing our Firefighters shoes and dry clothes and forwarding the Emergency phones to Chief Garson’s Cell phone . If you called us that night she was answering your phone calls, telling you to go to a second floor and stay upstairs until the tide went down. All our members preformed exceptionally well, Trying to evacuate the elderly and families from their homes through windows to a safe location. We stayed to assist people that were trapped, along with children and seniors as cars floated past us. We shuttled dozens of people to Resurrection in the ambulance. The engine and it’s crew positioned themselves on Cyrus Avenue on higher ground, while other units were blocked by water on Bijou Avenue. The crew extinguished multiple car fires. When the tide finally receded we checked on those that previously called for help and pulled people out of their homes.
Early the next morning people came to the firehouse in need of help. We knew we had to make the best of it, especially since our firehouse was almost a total loss with most of the equipment destroyed.
Our firehouse amongst the debris, instantly sprang up as a relief site. Food and clothes started to come in. As the numbers of families that needed assistance grew, our relief efforts grew. We opened our memorial hall as supplies began pouring in from everywhere. As the supplies came in, the calls from all over the country came in to check on their loved ones. Our Vollies now had two jobs; assist our entire neighborhood with protecting life and property and now feeding, clothing and supporting our neighbors, families and friends. After a while FEMA became part of our relief center and became an official Disaster Recovery Center.
BLIZZARD OF 2010
On Tuesday morning, a heart-attack victim in Gerritsen Beach waited more than 70 minutes after calling 911 before being transported to an ambulance, which couldn’t get closer than three or four blocks from the residence, said John Czap, chief of the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department.
In another case, a stroke victim on Monday waited at least an hour before his ambulance service reached her home in the same neighborhood, Mr. Czap said.
The GBFD crew arrived at the victim’s house about 15 minutes after receiving a call from the city fire department. NYC Firefighters were on scene but couldn’t get a city ambulance because of the weather, he said. The GBFD was able to get in due to extensive preparations and community support.
They drove the patient to a hospital on Kings Highway but couldn’t get the ambulance past the snow-clogged entrance, he said. So they enlisted hospital workers to ferry the victim on a stretcher waist-high across a highway lane and a service road.
Having worked a night shift at NYC Transit on the 10th into the 11th, our Captain Benecke was awakened by a phone call at about 845 a.m. from Assistant Chief John Czap telling him to get up and turn on the TV. As they were discussing the size of the hole and the size of the initial plane, they, like so many millions of others, witnessed the second plane hit.
The department was immediately toned out for a State of Emergency by Gerrittsen Beach Chief Artie DeMello.
Members responded to the firehouse and were informed by the Chief to crew up Engine 1 and Ambulance 3 so that we could meet the request of the FDNY to staff and cover the quarters of Engine 321.
In addition our Reserve Ambulance 4 was supplied and placed into service so as to maintain a presence within the confines of Gerrittsen Beach. We received only one call for the remainder of the day when FDNY dispatched us, and a ladder company from the Newark NJ Fire Department that was stationed at the quarters of Ladder 156, to a carbon monoxide detector call on Stuart Street. Earlier that evening around 5 or 6 pm, Assistant Chief Czap and Captain Garson responded to Battery Park as part of a triage crew. At the request of Chief DeMello we kept a crew in quarters that evening so as to respond locally if needed.
On the afternoon of the 12th a contingent of members reported to the quarters of FDNY 10/10 House to assist in search and rescue as well as recovery efforts. We remained there at the pile at 10/10 House until Friday morning when we returned to the Beach.
On Saturday-September 15, Assistant Chief Czap, Lt. Romako and Capt. Benecke returned to Ground Zero and were assigned to the Financial Center Marina to locate and recover any and all serviceable equipment. (Ironically one of the hose lines we recovered was from FDNY Engine 321). Over the next several months the department was requested to provide an ambulance and crew to the recovery operations.
Our crews on 9/11:
Engine 1 – Relocated to FDNY Engine 321
Chauffeur – Capt. Joe Benecke
Officer – Chief DeMello
FF – Art Umlas
FF – Anthony Soto
Prob – Mike Giordano
Prob – James Murry
Prob – Cathy Benecke Jr
Firehouse: Dispatch, Staff Ambulances 3 & 4, and Support Services
Dispatcher – Pat Howard
Lt – Cathy Benecke
Lt – Tee Romako
FF – Mark White
EMT – P. Grady
Prob – Chris Lewis
Initial Ground Zero Crew:
Asst. Chief – John Czap
Captain – Doreen Garson
Mill Basin 1962
The Vollies responded with foam to help put it out.
December 19, 1960, the Vollies responded to the city’s call for assistance in fighting a blaze aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constitution