‘We need help desperately; everybody does’

Posted 4/27/22

HIGHLAND LAKE, NY — Like most volunteer fire departments in the country, the Highland Lake Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) is struggling to retain its roster of active firefighters and to …

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‘We need help desperately; everybody does’


HIGHLAND LAKE, NY — Like most volunteer fire departments in the country, the Highland Lake Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) is struggling to retain its roster of active firefighters and to recruit new members into the fire service.

New firefighters would join a long, honorable tradition.

As recounted in the history of the department compiled for the 50th anniversary in 1998, “After much discussion and planning on the process of forming a fire department by members of the Highland Lake Chamber of Commerce, an organizational meeting was held at the Pinehurst Casino on May 26, 1948.”

The motion to form a department was approved, and “Twenty-one men signed up to be firefighters.”

In short order, at a second meeting on June 1, 1948, Anthony Rennenberg was elected chief and Robert Ferero was selected as president, a 1923 American LaFrance fire engine was purchased from the Ellenville Fire Department, and in the fall of 1948, Joseph and Mary Mellan sold the department land for $1 to erect a firehouse.

The 1923 chain-driven American LaFrance apparatus rode on solid-rubber tires. It was placed into service in July, 1948, while construction of the firehouse—using all-volunteer labor—started in May of 1949, and was completed in September 1950.

In recalling a bit of local early history, Chief Warren Wagner said, “The guys were telling us stories; that if there was a fire call, the phone rang into one of the neighbor’s houses across the street, next door to the old fire house, and that activated the fire siren.”


As time passed, the department outgrew the original station. Things were so tight that trucks had to be parked so close to the walls that operators were forced to get into them through the passenger’s side doors, climbing over the passenger’s seat into the driver’s seat.

About 12 years ago, a new fire house was built using department funds, aided by a loan from the New York State Emergency Services loan program. It’s a fixed two-percent loan only available to fire departments and ambulance corps.

The chief’s story

In 1978 Wagner joined the Port Jervis Maghogomock Hook & Ladder Company at the age of 18. “A couple of my best friends in high school had joined because their fathers were members there, and I had relatives there also.”

Noting that he has dedicated a total of 42 years to the local fire services, Chief Wagner left the hook and ladder company after 20-some years, and following a break, joined the Highland Lake VFD, first as a firefighter, then rising up through the ranks to captain, assistant chief, and finally the head of the department.

Help is badly needed

As he talked about the problems facing volunteer fire departments, Chief Wagner noted that the membership at Highland Lake is rapidly “aging out… we only have two members that are under 40 years old. About six are in their 40s, a couple in their 50s, and the rest are 60 on up,” That includes two 83-year-old active firefighters.

“The fire services and ambulance services, everybody, are in desperate need of people,” said Wagner. “The whole culture and environment has changed; people just don’t have the time to commit, or they just take it for granted. It’s coming to a head. We’ve seen it coming for years. We need help desperately; everybody does.”

Wagner said that residents of the area “can’t afford paid departments,” as the cost of paid firefighters and equipment is beyond the reach of local municipalities. “Unless something changes, it’s not good… we need young people who can commit to fire schools, and also people who might be retired to drive trucks, pump the trucks.

“People have the misconception that in order to be a fireman, you need to go into a burning building, but there’s a ton of other jobs: driving a truck, fire police, surface support for a dive team, boat operation… we need help with everything,” he said.

Wagner is a member of Highland Lakes VFD Dive & Water Rescue team, a highly trained  unit of the department that specializes in water rescue and diving recovery operations. He is the co-captain.

“Last year we were incredibly busy; 90 to 95 precent of the calls were on the Delaware River, and between the river and a couple of lakes it seemed like it was nonstop from the beginning of May right through the end of October,” he said.

firefighters, volunteers, tradition


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