The Gerrittsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1922 when Gerrittsen Beach was a small, predominately summer community. In 1921 a damaging fire on Abbey Court showed the community that the city’s regular fire apparatus could not reach the Beach in time to put out the fire. A mass meeting was called by the residents which resulted in the organization of the only volunteer fire department in Brooklyn.
The original firehouse was built in 1921 or 1922 on the corner of Seba Avenue and Frank Court in conjunction with the Gerrittsen Beach Original Property Owners Association. In 1932 Mayor John F. O’Brien, under the laws of the State of New York, approved the department as a Fire Corporation. Eventually, the Gerrittsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department became a separate organization; it had always been self-sustaining. From occupying a small garage with enough room for an engine and meetings, the Volunteer Fire Department has grown over the years to owning a fleet of four vehicles, with its own firehouse, and it responds to more than 500 calls for help annually.
The volunteers (affectionately known as the Vollies or, in earlier days, the Vamps) are ever on the alert for the fire horn. When it blows, they drop everything and rush to the firehouse, where the call may be for a deadly fire, a drowning, or a medical emergency.
In the early days members of the community held their business meetings, dances, and fundraisers in the firehouse. Both St. James and Resurrection churches originally held their services there. In the beginning, every able-bodied man had to help, and every property owner was required to have an oil lantern and two pails of sand marked “FIRE.” In order for the Vollies to sound an alarm, they used rims from locomotive wheels with a piece cut out to make the sound loud and clear. The rims and a sledgehammer were mounted on poles every few blocks.
At that time the firemen had no way of knowing what kind of alarm or what address they were responding to. When the city telegraph alarm system was hooked up to the firehouse, they finally were able to know which box number to respond to. They also received calls for help on a telephone hotline. Later, more modern equipment included a push-button alarm that activated a radio that was installed in each firefighter’s home.
Before the city added water mains to Gerrittsen Beach streets, the Volunteers had to handle fires at least three times a week. Most families had oil stoves or kerosene lamps, and the water had to be pumped from wells. The city did not build Engine Company 321’s firehouse at Gerrittsen Avenue and Avenue U until October 4, 1930.
The Vollies participated in tournaments with other Volunteer Fire Departments from the Bronx and Queens. They also had carnivals in 1972, 1973, and 1974. The carnival would start with a parade, then a bazaar. A bucket brigade contest between teams from all the Beach organizations competed for trophies. With bands to dance to, the festivities would go on into the night.
No one remembers who built the original firehouse. Clark Realty Associates may have built it or given the land to the Property Owners Association so that the latter could build a place to house a fire engine and hold fundraisers and meetings. As far as we know Realty Associates built the Marine Casino (where the Tamaqua is now) in the early 1920s to be used by the community and lifeguards. In 1928 the old firehouse was extended by the Vollies to hold more equipment. This addition also included a dance hall and bar. The firehouse now has a large kitchen, bathrooms, and storage for additional supplies for the apparatus. It is also used to store mannequins and training equipment such as a TV, VCR, tables, and chairs. All fundraising and drills and training are done in the old firehouse. A new firehouse was built at Dare Court in the 1950s, and the old firehouse was sold to the Blue Star Mothers with the stipulation that the Vollies could meet there to do their training and so forth. It was renamed the Blue Star Mothers’ Hall.
The Blue Star Mothers were mothers of WW II servicemen. At that time they had a large number of members who needed a place to meet and do volunteer work for the servicemen. The firehouse housed the fire engine and rescue truck. When the sewers came into the Beach in the late 1950s, the money received by the city because of the upgrade to street level was used to add an extension. The remodeling took place in 1961 to provide space for another truck, a larger dispatcher’s room, where the men could sit while waiting for the truck to come back or for the next run. In the extension, there was more room to store the firemen’s gear, oxygen tanks, and eventually the ambulance, and the cabinets needed to store the ambulance’s extra supplies. The firemen spent a lot of social and work time in the firehouse.
Women came into the department for the first time as special service members in 1972. A woman had to be a member of the Auxiliary in order to join. Those who joined were trained in first-aid care. The first year they were trained, New York State held a first-aid contest; members of the Women’s Auxiliary entered and won second place. A year later the Vollies by-laws were changed and women were admitted as members. Since then women also have had the option of becoming trained in fighting fires, and they have done so right alongside the men.
In 1974 the Vollies were approved by the New York State Department of Health as an Emergency Services Training Center. Between 1974 and 1998 they trained thousands of people from other agencies as Emergency Medical Technicians and Certified First Responders as well as untold numbers of people in CPR, first aid, and babysitting safety. Around 1995 the city Fire Department was combined with the medical (ambulance) department. All the city’s firemen had to be trained as Certified First Responders, and some of the Vollies were hired to train them at Randall’s Island. Firemen now have to be trained as First Responders before coming into the Fire Department and many of them are still trained by the Vollies.
On the Vollies 65th anniversary, Tracey Real Estate, Byrnes Funeral Home, Dr. John Elefterakis, and McManus Funeral Home organized a committee to raise money to buy defibrillators, which have saved many lives since then. In fact, the Gerritsen Beach Fire Dept. was the second unit in the city to purchase an Automatic External Defibrillator, long before NYC*EMS placed them on its BLS ambulances.
On our 95th anniversary, we honored Chief Fred Colley for his years of service.