After 41 years of service at the Ithaca Fire Department — or 46 years, including his time as a bunker while a student at Ithaca College — Guy Van Benschoten ’74 will retire Feb. 22 from his role as the Ithaca Fire Department’s assistant fire chief.
However, he will not be retiring from his lifelong passion. Van Benschoten plans to volunteer at the fire station where he now lives in King Ferry, New York, and continue as a senior research associate at John Jay College in New York City.
Opinion Editor Kayla Dwyer spoke with Van Benschoten about his passion, his relationship with the Ithaca Fire Department and some landmark fire calls in his career.
Kayla Dwyer: Where does your passion for fire service come from?
Guy Van Benschoten: Picture me as about a 2-year-old on a fire truck back in Peekskill, New York. I was always fascinated by them, and my father was a volunteer firefighter. The firemen had the Memorial Day parade and the Fourth of July parade, and the bands were good, but the fire trucks were always the coolest part.
KD: Can you describe how you got into the bunker program alongside attending Ithaca College?
GVB: Friends and I back in high school were looking at colleges in the fall of our senior year. … I figured I’d travel over to Ithaca to see what it had to offer. It was a fall day, the leaves dropped, and I’d taken the president’s host tour. … They asked for questions, and I said, relative to a state school, how can folks afford going to a private school? She said some of the guys live in the fire station — most of the athletes do. I fancied myself as an athlete, and I went home, told my guidance counselor — he was one of the folks from World War II with quiet energy, and he’d never talk about himself. He had gone to Ithaca College on the GI bill, post-World War II, graduate class of ’51: Chuck Walsh. His driver at the time became the fire chief in Ithaca back in 1970. … He called him up, and I got accepted as a bunker before I got my acceptance letter to Ithaca College. And they both came. I was very happy and haven’t looked back.
KD: So what was it like going out on calls when you were just a young student, as a bunker?
GVB: Oh, I thought it was exciting — it was the best. We had nowhere near the gear that we have today, all the safety rules — we could ride on the back of the truck. I was excited about the training. I asked what we should do, and the chief at the time said when the bell hits, slide down the pole, get on the truck that everybody else is getting on, and do what they do. So I said “I can do that!”
KD: When you go on call and go to the scene of a fire, what is usually at the forefront of your mind?
GVB: Life safety. Absolute first. Our overarching values are responder safety, life safety of the occupants, incident stabilization and property and/or environmental conservation, whichever one is more important.
KD: Do any calls throughout your career stand out in your mind?
GVB: In my first year, on my 15th day, there was a fire where we got kind of cut off above the fire on the second floor and couldn’t find our way back to the door we came in. There were some steps outside the building to the second floor of an apartment, and my lieutenant saw the lights of the fire vehicle shining through the smoke … so he punched his helmet through the window, and the window was too small to fit our bodies through with air bags on. We took them off, we taught ourselves on the fly how to leave our face pieces on because the gases were superheated, and we passed the tank through the window and then scrambled up after it. Now they train folks on how to do those things as a recruit, but as I said, the training standards were nowhere near as strong as they are now.
KD: What else has changed in your 41 years at the department?
GVB: The expectations for the firefighters. We used to do just fire only, and then we got into emergency medical service, technical rescue, accident vehicle extrication. … EMS is huge now — it’s probably about 40 percent of our calls, and it used to be zero. So not only does a young firefighter need to know how to drive all of our equipment and operate them, … but they also need to be a New York State–certified basic emergency medical technician. … You can teach most folks the skills, and most folks have the ability, … but you need to have passion for the job.
KD: How do you find your passion for it?
GVB: It feels so good when you’ve done a good job and made a difference on somebody’s worst day. It’s best when you’ve made a difference and there’s a successful outcome. The worst day is when you do your best, and it was such a bad deal that there was a life lost or significant property damage. You did your best, and it still wasn’t good enough. Hopefully there are more positives than negatives.
KD: We talked about how the fire department has changed. How has the job changed you?
GVB: I used to think I was God’s gift to firefighting. We all are, and the Lord, She works in mysterious ways, so I’ve learned now over the years that it’s very much a team effort. The fire doesn’t go out because I show up or because one of the engines shows up, but it’s the teamwork of everybody pulling together with a common purpose, kind of like a crew team. You have all sorts of strong people, and they’re all rowing as best they can, but if it’s not coordinated, they’re just floundering. As opposed to firefighters running around like chickens with their heads cut off, we’re all moving about quickly with purposeful execution toward a common objective.