WHEATFIELD – Things have changed since the Frontier Volunteer Fire Department was started nearly 75 years ago. But one thing that has not changed is the Mack family, which recently welcomed a fourth generation to join the firefighting ranks.
Fire Chief Bruce W. Mack recently looked on as his 18-year-old son, Brandon, a junior firefighter since 2009, was sworn in by his grandfather, Harvey R. Mack Jr., this summer.
All three have joined the ranks as volunteers in the Frontier Fire Department, which was started by the family’s patriarch, the late Harvey R. Mack Sr.
Harvey Mack Sr. was a charter member for the Frontier company with Harry Burns and Harry Getzman in 1939. They incorporated the department in 1940, and the senior Mack was a member until his death in 1977.
Harvey Mack Jr., 79, the department’s most senior member, has been a member since 1952 and still directs traffic at fire calls. His son Bruce, 43, began his career as a junior firefighter in 1984, became a full member in 1988 and is currently serving in his second stint as chief.
Could there be another Mack around the corner? Bruce Mack said he couldn’t say right now, but his 11-year-old daughter, Hallee, has been asking to ride on the truck and sound the siren.
Harvey Mack looked back at old photos and remembered, “The first fire hall was like a garage, and they kept the old fire truck there. Dad had a siren in the house, and he would get a phone call whenever there was fire anywhere in the district, and it was his job to sound the siren.”
Bruce Mack added, “Originally, it was a residents group to get stone on the road and make improvements, and out of that grew the need for better fire protection.”
The department was formerly located on three parcels of land that Mack and the two others owned on Frontier Avenue between 102nd and 103rd streets in Wheatfield. It has since relocated to Liberty Avenue, where the company has corporate offices. There also is a training site and fire station on River Road, where the trucks are located.
“I got involved because he was involved,” Bruce Mack said, pointing to his father. “It was a normal thing to do. We helped the firemen, and by 18, it was the thing to do. It was just second nature to become a member. There was always a monitor in the house.”
The older Macks said that until the mid-1950s, there were no radios for paging volunteers, so someone would have to blow the siren.
“At one time, they had a call tree,” Bruce Mack said.
“Now there is a lot faster response time and much more direct access to saving lives – heart attacks, car accidents,” said Harvey Mack. “Before, it took you forever and a day to get an ambulance out here. We were really in the country.”
Harvey Mack said that it used to be a “fantasy” to be a firefighter and that in the 1960s, the department was a social hub, with field days almost every weekend and up to 130 members. Now, with population shifts and two-parent working families, the Fire Department has about 48 regular members.
“We try to accommodate them,” said Bruce Mack. “We are always looking for new members.”
He said that some members are asked to stay behind and watch the little ones who are brought to the fire hall.
Brandon Mack, the newest firefighter, said, “I tell people my first fire was when I was 2 weeks old, because (my dad) was a chief at the time and my mom was working.” So he was brought to the fire hall when duty called his dad.
The men acknowledge that their fire duty comes before their family.
“When the siren calls, you drop what you are doing at home and answer the call,” said Harvey Mack.
Bruce Mack said that a lot of people assume they are paid to be firefighters.
“They are surprised that we are volunteers,” he said.
As the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was upon them, the Macks were reminded both how rewarding saving a life can be and how devastating it can be to lose a life, particularly a fellow firefighter. Bruce Mack who has trained firefighters statewide, said he lost friends he had trained who were New York City firefighters.
He also lost his best friend, Ronald T. Kreamer, a Frontier volunteer who collapsed from stress and died fighting a fire Aug. 13, 2001. The department has since named its training center in his memory.
And as Bruce Mack became emotional about the loss of a close friend, it was clear how important a family can be as both his father and son jumped in to help him tell Kreamer’s story.
“There’s a downside to it,” Bruce Mack said. “I lost my best friend, Ronnie. He died at the fire.”
“It was at an apartment building, across from the Summit Park Mall,” said Harvey Mack. “It got struck by lightning,” said Brandon Mack.
“All the firemen were working real hard, and it was just about out. The one fireman (Kreamer), he was just a young kid, sat on a bumper to get oxygen, not realizing he was so close to death,” said Harvey Mack.
“It was a stress-induced heart attack,” said Bruce Mack.
Bruce Mack said guys he knew personally, whom he considered friends, were working when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.
“It’s rough. I think about those guys all the time, just like I think about Ronnie,” he said. “It’s tough to talk about, but there’s so much adrenaline when you are out there. Your training kicks in, and you do what you have to do.”
The three men called it a brotherhood and said that they considered all of the department as their family.
“All the people in the firehouse are your brothers and sisters,” Brandon Mack said. “You need something, and they are there for you.”
Harvey Mack added, “The best thing about being a firefighter is coming back to the hall and knowing you participated in saving a life.”