KEESEVILLE — When they were boys, Jim King and Charlie Cobb were fascinated by the fire department.
Now, they have been Keeseville firefighters for 50 years.
“When I was a young lad growing up in the village, I lived two blocks from the fire station,” King said. “Every time the whistle blew, I jumped on my bike and rode to the station to see which way the trucks were going.”
The first in his family to join the ranks, King decided to apply once he was old enough.
For Charlie Cobb, on the other hand, firefighting was a family tradition.
“My father put 38 years in before he died.”
As soon as he got his driver’s license, Cobb began driving his father to the fires. Eventually, he applied to join the department himself.
But both Cobb and King were denied admission based on a vote — “black-balled,” King called it, a term referring to the white or black balls that firefighters would use to indicate yes or no votes.
At that time, he said, “you never got in on the first try.”
When they applied again, they were accepted.
HUGE HOTEL FIRE
One of the first fires they fought also proved to be one of their most memorable experiences. The Adirondack Hotel, a four-story structure located where the Keeseville Post Office now stands, was aflame. King and Cobb were on the first engine to arrive.
They went in through the back entrances, hose at the ready, and found themselves in a room filled with paint and flammable materials.
The next thing they knew, King said, “the thing blew us out into the street. We picked ourselves up and said, ‘What happened?’”
The fire spread in two directions, and mutual aid was called in. Firefighters finally stopped it at one end, while on the other, it hit the road and burned out.
“Ironically, it was Ash Wednesday,” King said.
It was quite a beginning to service with the fire department.
“We put our helmets back on and went to another assignment,” King said.
“We didn’t know if we wanted to go back or not,” said Cobb, “but we did.”
There are some common elements in many situations that firefighters face, King said. “A fire is a fire is a fire.”
At the same time, there has been a vast range to their experiences. Some have been happy, while others have been tragic.
There have been situations that “you try not to remember, but you do,” Cobb said.
The two have also seen tremendous changes in technology during their 50 years of service.
At first, it was a requirement that firefighters live in the village, because they needed to be able to hear the siren.
And 50 years ago, the department had only one airpack. King recalls being told to ignore the smoke — “just get in and do the job.”
Now, it is a requirement that firefighters wear a self-contained breathing apparatus as they enter a smoky environment.
“It makes a lot of sense,” King said.
When he and Cobb began their service, a firefighter’s uniform consisted of a rubber raincoat, rubber boots and a steel helmet.
Many pieces of clothing were ruined by smoke damage.
“There was no reimbursement,” King said. “Families had to bear the brunt.”
Now, firefighters have heat-resistant gear that provides better protection.
HARD TO RECRUIT
However, fire departments are also facing new challenges. It is harder to find volunteers, the men said, and many who do volunteer do not stay long.
King feels that the sense of commitment to the community that motivated his generation has declined and that fewer people are willing to take on the responsibility and effort of being firefighters.
“These alarms never go off when you’re not doing something,” he said.
And those who do want to help the community by serving as firefighters may face pressure from employers, he said.
When he began his service, King recalled, it was a given that employers would respect the duties of volunteer firefighters.
“Some employers won’t let people go now.”
The decline in numbers, King said, is the reason that so many fires are now fought using mutual aid.
“As time goes on, I hope people keep filling in the ranks.”
Now, King is 71, and Cobb is 74. Their 50 years with the Keeseville Volunteer Fire Department were recently recognized at a firefighters’ banquet.
They look back on decades of service — and forward to more adventures.
“I keep telling them I’ve still got another 20 years,” Cobb said.
“Fifty years have gone by fast,” King said.