Public answers burning question at Morristown fire department open house

By Berit Ollestad

The burning question for the Morristown fire department was: Would they come?

It had been well over 10 years since the department had held an open house for the community. A lot had changed in that decade. Taxes had gone up and services had been slashed around the state.

Yet that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. There was plenty of that to go around–organizers estimated nearly 500 people showed up on April 15.

Photos by Berit Ollestad. Please click icon below for captions.

Residents could try their skill at maneuvering a high-powered hose. There was an obstacle course that delighted the youngsters, along with demonstrations of fire gear, complimentary photos of kids dressed as firefighters, and presentations throughout the four-hour event.

The Morristown & Township Library had a table with artifacts and information on the department. Some 400 hot dogs were served, with soda, popcorn and ice cream. Firefighter and union president Gerry Beston had approached the day with his fingers crossed; he was thrilled with the turnout.

“I’m really excited to share with the community how great their fire department is,” Beston said, adding he was pleased that some town council members also stopped by to show their support. Residents were overheard expressing curiosity about life within the firehouse.

Joey SanFelice III, a second-generation firefighter, said residents were surprised by “how heavy our equipment is, and how we do so much more than just put out fires.”

Captain Bob Whitehead said that “by allowing the community, but more specifically the children, to come in and familiarize themselves with us, it helps to alleviate the fear they may experience in a stressful situation when we have all our gear on and look pretty scary.”

Firefighter Alex Cadena said residents told him “it’s about time you guys had an open house.” Cadena promised, “This is only the beginning of many more to come.”

A driving force in making the open house a reality was Firefighter Sean McDonough.

LITTLE SQUIRT: Boy takes aim at Morristown fire department open house. Photo by Berit Ollestad.

LITTLE SQUIRT: Boy takes aim at Morristown fire department open house. Photo by Berit Ollestad.

“It was an opportunity to open up our firehouse and share with the community that we want them to know it’s a partnership between the two of us. We love what we do and we appreciate our jobs and don’t take anything for granted because it’s hard work. To have the opportunity to put on an open house for the community is a privilege for us,” McDonough said.

Shannon Maldonado, a representative from Atlantic Health, said she and her team were glad to be included. They performed health screenings.

“Oftentimes, this is a segment of the population that gets over-looked. There is a large concentration of uninsured residents that live over by the firehouse. We were able to identify roughly 75 percent of the participants that we tested today with unhealthy glucose and high blood pressure readings, that we will now continue to monitor,” she said.

Firefighter Nick Prizzi, a veteran of more than 12 years in the department, said the department is a resource for everyone in Morristown.

“We like to think of ourselves as the big brothers of the town,” Prizzi said. “We aren’t here to pass judgment on you, we only want to lend our support if you need it. We are here for you; regardless if it’s an emergency or not. Our doors are always open, even if you only want to stop in and say ‘hello.’ It makes no difference who you are, how much money you make, your status in the community, if you need us we’ll be there. I don’t see the color, creed or religion in someone when we get the call to help, I see someone that is in distress that needs us.

“It’s distant to me when you call what I do a ‘job,’ because that implies that I just do it for the paycheck and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Being a fireman is just a feeling, I can’t explain it. Now that I’ve been doing it for as long as I have, I can’t turn it off, it’s always on inside of me,” Prizzi said.

Acting Chief Robert Flanagan said the department faces challenges keeping abreast of new developments and renovations to commercial and residential buildings in Morristown. The continuous expansion of Morristown Medical Center also is “constantly challenging us to make sure that everything is up to code and that we are intrinsically familiar with lay-outs of each of these structures,” he said. This drives the department to stay current on training and technology, he said.

What makes the department special?

“Every guy here is so unique and different in their own right,” Flanagan said. “They bring their individuality and talents to the table and are able to come together. Ultimately, it’s all about teamwork here.”

That teamwork helped rescue a woman during last October’s freak snowstorm. Capt. Jon Prachthauser and fellow firefighters Sean McDonough, Mike Cirelli and Don Leyhan had just returned to the station on a busy day with downed power lines and falling trees.

Prachthauser noticed a small group congregated across the street tugging on branches to no avail. A tree had fallen onto a woman walking by. Firefighters raced over and tried removing the tree manually, but it proved to be futile. So they grabbed a chainsaw and got to work. Painstakingly, branch by branch and limb by limb, they extricated the woman, who was seriously injured.

They remained with the woman and got her stabilized until paramedics arrived and transported her to the hospital, where she remained for a week. In his 26 years of service, Prachthauser said, this was the first time someone had returned to the station to express thanks for being rescued.

He asked Capt. Bob Whitehead if anyone had ever thanked him for helping out.

“Well yah,” Whitehead responded. “I had some woman thank me once for changing her tire for her.”