Wyckoff Emergency Responders: The Unsung Heroes of Hurricane Sandy

In order to protect local residents, first responders sacrificed their own safety during the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.

More than 130 dead. Damages totaling more than $71 billion. 

In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, the broadly devastating toll wrought on the east coast became clear. 

Here in Wyckoff, the storm caused persistent inconveniences, such as long-lasting power outages, gas shortages, and road blockages, for residents and presented a unique set of obstacles for emergency responders.

As the old adage goes, "proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance," and for the township's fire, police and ambulance crews, their widely praised performance may have been the direct result of actions taken in the days preceding Hurricane Sandy. 

"We might be here for quite a while."

For the Wyckoff Volunteer Fire Department preparations began in earnest in the fire house on Saturday.

"We started making sure that the saws were operating, we made sure we had all our gas, all our generators hooked up, changed the oil on our generators,” said Firefighter Doug Christie, a veteran with the department for more than 20 years.

Volunteer firefighters camped out at the firehouse for the entirety of the storm, he said.  

“On Sunday we went out and bought all kinds of food cause we thought we might be here for quite a while," said Christie, who is also a township committeeman. "We bought 15 dozen eggs, [and] I can’t tell you how many pounds of bacon. It’s ridiculous how much bacon we ate.”

The Wyckoff Volunteer Ambulance Corps prepared similarly in the days before the storm, servicing an emergency generator and ensuring adequate medical and emergency supplies were in stock, said WVAC Captain Charles Bellucci.

Members were mobilized on the Sunday the storm was forecast to strike, and arrangements were made to have one crew staying at the building while a second crew would come into the building when the first crew was dispatched to a medical emergency, he added.

For the Wyckoff Police Department, Chief of Police Benjamin Fox authorized the department to purchase additional flares, traffic cones and yellow caution tape and stock its vehicles. 

"I issued an order that effective the day before the storm hit, all personnel were ordered to be on-call. That is, always phone available and able to report for duty if called," Fox said.

But, despite the intense preparation, Hurricane Sandy tossed hazard after hazard at first responders. 

“In my 12 years of service, I've never had a more difficult time responding to calls," said WVAC Member Brian Cole. As a result of the downed trees and power lines, many of which were still live, our response times went from a few minutes to almost 15 minutes."

While police vehicles were able to navigate roads with low hanging trees, the height of the WVAC ambulance made barely passable routes completely impassible, Cole said.

“If there was ever a question as to the need for a rapid response vehicle, Hurricane Sandy provided a clear answer: yes,” said Cole.

Bellucci confirmed that the WVAC is currently looking into the possibility of obtaining such a vehicle — a Chevy Suburban or equivalent, he said — to allow expedited response to calls or to "provide additional supplies and equipment at emergency locations.”

During the height of the storm — for several hours on the evening of Oct. 29  — Wyckoff Police pulled their officers off the streets for routine calls. 

"I issued the order to have all officers retreat to a building for safety," Fox said. "The call volume could not be handled, and there was nothing for us to do about downed trees and wires. It was downright dangerous out there. 

The goal was to not unnecessarily place anyone in harms way, Fox said, instead focusing on medical emergencies and fire calls.

"Completely Paralyzed"

The WVFD responded to an unprecedented number of calls as a result of Sandy.

“During the course of the storm, which we consider the week-long event basically, we did 195 calls," said WVFD Chief Mike Rose. "Those calls ranged from the peak of the storm up until [Nov. 8]." 

Rose said his department expects to respond to an average of 600 calls each year, so to pile a third of those responses over the course of a week is remarkable. 

"We’ve never had a storm that completely paralyzed the entire system in town like this," he said. There’s always been sections of town, but this was all of town was out completely."

The long list of emergencies to which the department responded included transformer fires, carbon monoxide leaks, vehicles crushed by falling tree limbs, flooded basements and water main breaks.

"On Sicomac and Russell Avenue we had a primary [electrical] line come down that probably burned for four or five hours in the roadway to the point where we actually had a gas leak there. PSE&G had to come and excavate the road the next day," Rose said.

Despite the pervasive and seemingly constant nature of the emergencies throughout the township, the 120 firefighters here were properly prepared and up to the task, Rose said.

"We’re very fortunate that we have a strong volunteer force here in Wyckoff," Rose said. "We’re all volunteers, so, during the storm itself, we had standby crews in each firehouse... 24/7 for three days just to make sure that we could respond."

Despite that volunteer response there were instances where volunteers were powerless to provide immediate relief, Rose said.

“What a lot of people, especially in this particular storm, don’t realize is that when power lines or any type of lines fall down in the trees, we can’t do anything about it — the DPW can’t do anything about it. It’s illegal for us to touch those wires," Rose said.  "So there were people trapped in their streets or trapped in their homes for a few days, if not a week — they couldn’t get out — and they were very frustrated with the fact that nobody could help them... We wish we could do more for people, sometimes we just can’t.”

Christie added that when the WVFD was unable to remove those wires, sometimes the only available course of action is to put fire line tape up to try to curtail injuries.

Sacrifices at Home

While emergency responders regularly make great sacrifices on the road to protect the well being of those in danger, during Hurricane Sandy the sacrifices they made also extended back to the homes of the firefighters.

Christie acknowledged that he had to leave his wife and 23-year-old daughter home alone while he responded to a surfeit of post-Sandy emergency calls. He sympathized with the families of other firefighters.

"It’s very difficult," Christie said. "You’ve got young moms with young children. They’re scared to death. Once we get on the truck, we’re out there... we don’t go back to the firehouse, we’re just all over town and it is difficult.”

"Monday afternoon [Oct. 29] we started around 4 o’clock," Rose said. "We didn’t stop, basically, for three days. So a lot of the families ended up coming up here... to each one of the firehouses."

Families converging on the firehouses during the storm is in line with the department's family-first attitude, Rose said, and the volunteer firefighters and their families even had a big family dinner at the firehouse the Friday after the storm — once things had settled down a little bit, Christie said.

“We say it’s a brotherhood, but it really is a brotherhood, you know. We watch each others’ backs," Christie said. 

Wyckoff Emergency Management Coordinator Lt. David Murphy said that the response here was an earnest effort involving hundreds of volunteers and members of the township's community.

"We have all trained on helping people prevent, prepare for, and respond to all types of emergencies but this one put all of us to the test," Murphy wrote in a statement following the storm.

"I’ve lived here my whole life," Christie added. "Our town is not defined by its brick and mortar; it's the people that live here, and just the outpouring of support."

Have a question or news tip? Contact editor Joseph M. Gerace at Joseph.Gerace@patch.com, or find us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your inbox every morning, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Janet December 02, 2012 at 11:52 AM
The phone message sent to residents to get home by 4:00pm was dead on. I heard from talking to neighbors with trees down on Cottage Rd, the worst winds were 4:00pm and our tree fell into the pool at 7:00pm. I'm sure some lives were spared by this warning.
eugene lipkowitz December 02, 2012 at 05:04 PM
If, as seems increasingly likely, high winds and/or heavy snow bring down local electric wires in such numbers as to overwhelm the restoration resources of the two electric companies that are currently obligated to serve different parts of Wyckoff, perhaps it is now time to consider one of the following alternatives: Municipalize the business of installing and maintaining electric wiring, as in Park Ridge, hire some skilled electric linemen, and cross train our public works employees so that our monthly electric bills will fund our having more local municipal employees who have both the skills and legal authority to promptly deal with downed wires as they skillfully deal with downed trees that block streets in Wyckoff. Alternatively, have the Township ask the State to compel one of the electric utilities currently serving part of Wyckoff to buy out the local assets of the other electric utility, so that the survivor has a greater stake in serving Wyckoff and dealing with the complaints from our residents and our Mayor.


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