Take the Coney Island bound Q subway line to Kings Highway, transfer to the B31 bus and eventually you will arrive in the small and isolated beach community of Gerritsen Beach. In the heart of this community exists the last volunteer fire department in Brooklyn, a proud institution revered by its entire neighborhood.
The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) has been protecting the lives and property of New York City residents for over 100 years. However, before the country’s largest paid fire department was first established in 1865, the city relied on volunteer fire companies to protect neighborhoods from life-altering emergencies.
Today, three quarters of the nation’s fire departments are volunteer departments. Volunteer fire companies save local governments millions of dollars yearly in labor costs. The National Fire Protection Association reports that as of 2008, 72% of firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
In NYC, there are nine remaining volunteer fire departments that can be found on the outskirts of the city where accessibility is limited by the FDNY. Volunteer firefighters call themselves vollies, and the vollies of Gerritsen Beach display a strong sense of community that has safeguarded the town since the department’s opening in 1922.
Doreen Garson, the current Assistant Fire Chief of the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department, has been a vollie for 24 years. She says, for her, volunteering is about giving back to her community.