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Hackensack's top two firefighters retire

Hackensack Fire and Rescue lost its two top officers in December through retirement.

Clarence “Butch” Moore retired after 30 years as a firefighter, including more than 20 years as chief. He also retired after 21 years as a medical first responder.

Russ Smieja retired after 25 years as a firefighter, about half of which he served as assistant chief.

They recently reflected on the changes they have seen in emergency response equipment and procedures since they started and reflected on some of the fires they fought.

Moore said he is thankful that in 30 years he never had to go to a fire where people were screaming for help inside a burning building and he could not save them.

Hackensack has suffered a few fire-related fatalities during those years, but it always was a case where no one could have saved the victim. One involved a house fire that occurred during the night and no one knew about the fire until a neighbor noticed the house was a pile of burned rubble the next morning.

Another involved a car fire that enveloped the victim quickly. The fire department reached the scene after there was no hope of saving the victim.

One of the most challenging fires to fight, Moore and Smieja recalled, was when they assisted the Backus Fire Department to battle the Scamp Trailer Sales’ manufacturing plant fire. The metal building made it difficult to reach the high-intensity fire inside the building.

Metal buildings make it challenging to get into the area between ceilings and rafters to smother flames, Moore said. In addition to metal buildings, they agreed, log building fires also can be hard to put out, because the building can become unstable and a risk to enter.

Changes in manufacturing methods in the last 30 years make a lot of structures more prone to burn more quickly, Moore said.

Hackensack Fire Department averaged about 12 calls per year when Moore started. Now, the department responds to between 15 and 20 calls a year. Of those only a few are major structure fires, with the balance being smaller fires like chimney fires and vehicle accidents.

Hackensack’s rescue service responds to about 150 calls a year.

Though they have no explanation for it, there seem to be fewer 4 a.m. fire calls now than in years past.

Hackensack First Response Team began as an independent volunteer rescue service 35 years ago. Seven years ago, the first response merged with the fire department. Since a number of the members served both organizations, the merger has worked well.

Today, a fourth of the 20 firefighters also are first responders and half of the 10 emergency medical technicians (EMT) also are firefighters.

Moore and Smieja started on the fire department largely because friends and relatives served on the department before them and got them interested in the fire department as a means to give community service.

Moore said he didn’t think he was doing enough as only a firefighter, so he also took the training to qualify as an EMT.

It turned out to be a good fit. Moore is known on the department for his uncanny knack for being close to calls before they come in.

In the normal routine of his work as a business owner, he has found himself four houses away from the scene of an emergency when he received the call. He has followed someone driving on an icy road and watched them go into the ditch and roll their vehicle in front of him.

Maybe, it is also the fact that Moore tends to be more aware of his surroundings than many people. His business is located in an open field at the outside edge of Hackensack. From there, he has spotted smoke coming from areas around Hackensack before he received the fire call.

He and Smieja said firefighter gear doesn’t look much different than when they started, but materials used and mechanics within have improved immensely. Gone are the tall rubber boots, replaced by fire-retardant pants.

Materials used for firefighter suits are much lighter and more fire resistant, they agreed. The air tanks firefighters carry into burning buildings to breathe are much lighter now that they are made of aluminum instead of steel.

Smieja is especially appreciative that they have improved the alarm that is supposed to sound on those tanks about two minutes before the air runs out. Newer alarms won’t freeze when the tank gets wet like it did when Smieja and another firefighter had to pry off their frozen mask frantically to get air when their older alarm failed to sound and they ran out of air.

Moore recalled fighting one fire where water they sprayed ran down from the roof onto him. By the time he finished fighting the fire, his entire suit had frozen. It took a wrench to pry open the buckles on his suit. The suit was frozen so stiff that he could not bend his legs or sit down.

When Moore started, the fire department basically operated with two trucks that had garden pumps on them, capable of pumping 250 gallons per minute each. Since then, the department has bought all new trucks except one used. It now operates with three fire pumpers capable of pumping 1,250 gallons, 1,000 gallons and 850 gallons per minutes.

The department also has two 2,000-gallon tank trucks, the newest of which was bought in 2007. They also have a four-wheel drive pickup equipped to fight brush fires and an equipment van that carries fire and rescue equipment.

They can refill water from the Hackensack water tower at the fire station or from lakes via public landings. Woodrow Township outside Hackensack recently added a hydrant on Woman Lake, which will permit drawing water from that lake even when the lake ice is frozen.

Training no longer is just about fighting structure fires. It now covers new laws, hazardous materials and cross training with other emergency services.

Since the Twin Towers bombing in New York, Hackensack and departments across the country have trained for mass casualties. While Moore and Smieja admit Hackensack might be an unlikely terrorist target, the mass casualty training could be very valuable if a tornado struck.

They agreed Hackensack has always had a good balance of fire and rescue personnel, some of whom may work elsewhere, but live close to the fire hall and can respond quickly at night, while others live outside the city but work in or close to the city and can respond quickly during the day.

Though some fire departments struggle to recruit new members today, so far Hackensack has been able to find enough dedicated people to keep their ranks filled, Moore said. It does take people, however, who are willing to devote the time to training.

As for Moore, who owns the Woodshed cabinet making business, and Smieja, who owns Call Russ Repair Service, they look forward to having more time for their personal businesses and not feeling so tied down to being available 24 hours a day.

While he won’t be carrying emergency equipment in his pickup like in the past, Moore said he would try to help if he finds himself witnessing an emergency in the future.

“You never forget how to do that,” he said.