By DEBORAH A. MILES
When Edward Heffern goes to work, his job may take him to the Florida Keys where he and a team from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC) Special Operations Branch, and volunteers, searched and assessed approximately 5,000 structures after Hurricane Irma left a path of destruction in October 2017.
You may find this fire protection specialist in places such as Newburgh, where in March 2018, a very heavy snowfall crippled travel in the Hudson Valley for three days. There he drove a Ford Excursion used by the OFPC with an aftermarket track system added, to allow driving in snow as deep as 4 feet.
This past July, a wildfire raged over 328 acres in Altona Flat Rock in Clinton County, an area thick with underbrush, blueberry bushes and jack pines, all of which are dry and prone to fire.
Heffern and two other fire prevention specialists (FPS), all PEF members, joined more than 120 firefighters from local areas, plus Vermont and Quebec.
“They brought in forest rangers from throughout the state who were actively working on containing and putting out the fire,” Heffern said. “The two FPS and I were assigned to logistical support, to help the rangers and command staff with anything they needed. We drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle designed to operate in remote areas, so the forest rangers did not have to walk as far, or transport heavy equipment.
“We drove on very rocky, dirt paths that were created by bulldozers. That required absolute concentration as the angles, at times, were steep and the terrain unstable. We drove the command staff around the entire fire, which took almost an hour. I was focused on the job.”
Making a difference
A month later, Heffern was no longer working in the intense summer heat magnified by the fire’s own power and the smoke-caked air. Instead, he and his team were deployed to the Lodi State Park area in Seneca County, where flash flooding left 50 to 70 people unable to escape from their water-jammed homes near the lake.
“The water rose quickly and the flooding caught people off guard, trapping them. Some people were in their homes, and others stood on rooftops. Once staff was on the scene and discovered the magnitude of the damage and the number of people who needed to be rescued, more resources were activated,” Heffern said.
“Our team utilized boats to navigate the newly running river, and to make contact with the victims. We moved them to a high-axel vehicle, which brought them to safety.
“This was one of my top five most memorable and rewarding experiences. The sincere thanks offered by the people we rescued made the hard work feel easy. It is being able to help people and making a difference that is extremely gratifying.
”You do not always see the immediate results of your efforts. A large part of our job is training the fire service. OFPC trains firefighters in everything they are going to need to do. My branch does the hazmat (hazardous materials) and technical rescue training. When I find out the training I delivered to people in the field made a difference, such as saving a life, it is rewarding in an indirect way.”
Red lights, sirens
Heffern applied his hazmat knowledge a couple of years ago when a motor vehicle accident involved a 12,000-gallon gasoline tanker. It had rolled over and was leaking its contents onto a roadway and into a culvert, which empties into a stream in Utica.
“Our office was called to assist with a flammable-liquid emergency. There was an active leak and our first actions were to assist with getting foam on the product to suppress the vapors and prevent a fire. We worked with multiple local and state agencies and formulated our action plan. Thankfully, most of the runoff was contained, and the incident went without anyone getting injured,” Heffern said.
“No two days are alike in Special Operations. Being in our position, we travel the entire state. The amount of travel involved can be challenging, especially if you have a family. There are days when we have little or no notice, and suddenly you are 300 miles and hours away from home. Sometimes, it is leaving on a Sunday and returning Friday evening. I’m away all week. That is more common than not.
“I’ve been here three years, and from what I have been told, this was just a training agency that went to fire houses to train firefighters. Now, we are a response agency, meaning we go out the door with red lights and sirens. We make rescues and assist local partners when emergencies grow beyond their capability.
“State Fire is so much more than it used to be or ever was,” Heffern said. “I am proud of the work our members do, and excited for the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life every day. I am proud to be a part of it.”