When lifetime Syosset resident Tom Montalbano first began interviewing veteran Syosset firefighters 25 years ago, he knew he would eventually write a book about the hamlet’s outstanding all-volunteer fire department. In 2008, with the department’s 100th anniversary on the horizon, he set out to make the book a reality.
“For seven years, I lived and breathed this story,” said Montalbano, whose book, Syosset Fire Department: 1915-2015, is now available through Lulu Publishing (www.lulu.com). “I traveled all over the New York area and contacted people across the country to locate and interview descendents of the fire company’s founders. I also scoured a seemingly bottomless pit of vintage newspapers and original company ‘minutes’ that painstakingly documented the department’s earliest days, its struggles through several 20th century crises and some of its most memorable fires and emergencies.”
For the book, Montalbano spent the better part of 12 years collecting old photographs, researching town documents and conducting interviews with longtime residents in order to piece together a comprehensive documentary. He designed the book to provide new residents with a sense of place and time and to treat established residents to an entertaining walk down memory lane.
“I met several fire department veterans who had a strong sense of pride and accomplishment about their years of volunteer service,” he said. “Their passion got me hooked and started my wheels turning about writing a book about the Syosset Fire Department.”
Montalbano said his most notable research revelation was finding that much of the information that has been published about the department’s history was somewhat inaccurate, the result of verbal embellishment or miscommunication through the generations. With access to volumes of vintage local newspapers dating back to the 1800s, the Town of Oyster Bay’s offical records and other materials, he was able to set the story straight.
The result is a comprehensive illustrated history of a fire department that started as a scruffy bucket brigade and developed into one of the region’s most highly regarded volunteer firefighting organizations. Montalbano said the earliest incarnation of the department ran to fires on foot, carrying buckets filled with sand to try to calm the blaze until they could find some water.
“The very first fire trucks carried tanks in which firemen mixed explosive chemicals to force water through a leather hose,” he said. “Fire hydrants didn’t exist in our community until the 1920s, so firefighters were severely limited to the water they could scoop out of ponds and wells.”
That rag-tag approach eventually gave way to better technology. But Montalbano said the key ingredient to the department’s success remains the humans who inhabit the ranks.
The fire department was traditionally a “club” consisting of energetic young men (and later women) who felt a community connection so strong that they considered protecting their friends and neighbors an obligation. Montalbano said the first generation of firefighters gave birth to children who joined as soon as they came of age. According to Montalbano, this continued for several generations into the 1980s, when the cost of living in the area soared and young people began to move away.
“To survive, the department has had to find creative ways to attract and retain young, able-bodied members, a difficult task given that so much of our population has become transient,” said Montalbano. “Losing our volunteer fire department would be tragic on many levels. This is why I am so grateful to the people who give their time so generously to this organization and why I felt so strongly about writing this book.”
Montalbano said his goal is to raise public awareness of the volunteer fire department’s importance to the community and to tip his hat to the extraordinary citizens who have been part of the department.
“I think the book will appeal not only to members of the department, but to anyone with an interest in Syosset history,” said Montalbano, whose 2001 Arcadia book, Syosset: Images Of America, has sold more than 6,000 copies. “In addition to telling the story of the fire department, the book also showcases several major events in the development of Syosset and Woodbury from the 1800s until today.”
The author will donate profits from the sale of The Syosset Fire Department: 1915-2015 to the all-volunteer force that protects residents of Syosset, Woodbury and beyond 365 days a year. To purchase a copy, visit www.lulu.com and enter “Syosset Fire” in the search box.
“The Syosset department ranks among the best-equipped, best-trained fire and emergency companies in the region, and that includes departments where members are paid for their services,” he said. “Its leadership has overcome numerous challenges during the past century, from struggling to buy the company’s first truck, to surviving two World Wars and the Great Depression, to maintaining a sufficient, well-trained membership in modern-day Syosset-Woodbury, where residents have limited time for volunteer work.”