‘It’s Not Like It Was on Pearl Harbor Day,’ 80-Year-Old Volunteer Says
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Being 80 years old and one of the only active members of an auxiliary firefighters association won’t stop Stan Hirschkorn from doing his job. Even after more than 60 years of service, he keeps his police scanner on and his walkie-talkie fastened to his uniform belt.
Mr. Hirschkorn is the assistant chief of the Far Rockaway-based Association of Auxiliary Volunteer Firefighters, a group struggling to recruit and retain volunteers who need be available only for large-scale emergencies.
Mr. Hirschkorn said he is often the only person to attend the association’s meetings. “Everyone’s personal life seems to be more important,” he said.
His dedication hasn’t diminished since the first day he volunteered at Engine 221/Ladder 104 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor. The volunteer force barred anyone under age 18 from joining, and Mr. Hirschkorn was only 16 at the time. “I was so mad,” he said. He said he was so determined to join that he lied, saying he was born in 1923 instead of 1925.
“It’s not like it was on Pearl Harbor Day,” Mr. Hirschkorn said. “Today it’s just the opposite — you ask people to volunteer and they don’t want to get involved.”
He started earning a salary only in 1954, when he became a FDNY dispatcher, a job he stayed with for 26 years until his retirement in 1980. Mr. Hirschkorn also served as an auxiliary police officer for 13 years and became chief of staff at the 69th precinct and captain at the 78th precinct.
Although the Association of Auxiliary Volunteer Firefighters’ chief, Jacob Goldstein, created the unit more than 20 years ago, in 1984, he can only rely on a few good men — Mr. Hirschkorn, of course, being one of them — to answer calls for help. The group currently has no formal base and uses a weather station in Far Rockaway as a makeshift headquarters.
“We have a meteorologist, computers, seismographs, short wave radios, and two way radios,” Mr. Goldstein said. “We notify the city about any danger coming.”
Due to the group’s low membership and other volunteer fire companies’ ability to respond faster to fire, medical, and police calls, Mr. Goldstein’s association now only tracks the weather and responds to widespread emergencies.
He said lack of funding is another reason for his group’s breakdown. Last month, another volunteer-run unit, the New York Fire Patrol, said it would dissolve in October after an audit deemed the group unproductive and insurance companies pulled its funding.
There are currently 10 volunteer companies listed as active in the FDNY Operational Reference Book — five in Queens, three in the Bronx (one company, Aviation Hose Company #3, is under renovation), and two in Staten Island. The Association of Auxiliary Volunteer Firefighters is not listed.
An FDNY spokesman, John Mulligan, said it’s a common problem for volunteer companies to struggle when recruiting members. “People work one job, two jobs even, and a lot of people work far from home and not in their community,” he said.
Organized fire fighting began in the city when a volunteer force formed in 1648, according to the New York City Fire Department. They served the city until the end of the Civil War; in 1865, they were superseded by the Metropolitan Fire Department, which offered paid jobs.
The historian at the FDNY’s George F. Mand Library, Fred Melahn, said it took more than 60 years for volunteer forces to fully disband. Due to inadequate record-keeping, he said he’s unsure when each unit stopped operating.
“Once they drop them, the Fire Department doesn’t keep any records of them,” he said. He said that although most volunteer units closed once they ran out of money, “some associations hung on,” and he suspects that volunteer forces in Brooklyn may have been the last to go.
When asked why he won’t stop working during his retirement years, Mr. Hirschkorn said he’s simply used to wearing his uniform and patrolling the neighborhood. “It’s in the blood,” he said.
After losing a brother to esophageal cancer, he said he realizes his time left may be short. “They say I have it too,” he said, pointing to a lump on his left throat gland. “I want to be buried militarily,” in Calverton National Cemetery, “in this uniform,” he said. His second wife is buried there.