Philadelphia’s Second Alarmers return from Hurricane Sandy relief mission in New Jersey

Continuing nearly a century of service to first responders, Philadelphia’s Second Alarmers celebrated their 91st anniversary last week in New Jersey assisting ongoing disaster recovery efforts stemming from Hurricane Sandy.

Based in East Falls on Roberts Avenue, the Second Alarmers are an all-volunteer rest and rehabilitation organization that provides the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments with canteen service and other amenities at fire scenes and other events requiring the prolonged presence of first responders.

Along with PFD medics, six members of the Second Alarmers were deployed to northern New Jersey for a week to provide support for the various police, fire, and medical personnel who were working in areas ravaged by the hurricane.

But they didn’t let up their local efforts: While on deployment, members who stayed in the city responded to several calls for service in Philadelphia, including two “runs” in Northwest Philadelphia.

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‘It was a first for us’ 

The deployment included unprecedented events for the Second Alarmers, who were founded in 1922: It was their inaugural deployment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in response to a national disaster. In addition, while on station, they were dispatched to assist with a four-alarm fire in Jersey City on Nov. 5 and a two-alarm blaze the previous weekend.

“It was a first for us, to respond in a different city in a different state,” said Greg Masi, chief of the Second Alarmers.

Masi’s organization was first contacted on Nov. 1, and was given 15 hours notice that their services would be needed in New Jersey, which he accepted on the condition that sufficient forces remain to cover Philadelphia. 

It was, and the following day he and five members of the Second Alarmers departed in two trucks bound for the Meadowlands, which played host to the various outfits providing emergency support.

Masi said no one really knew what to expect.

Long days on little sleep and lots of demand 

They kept busy: Masi recalled 20 hour days spent preparing meals and providing hospitality services for first responders stationed at the Meadowlands, who would sometimes be sent out for 24, 48, or even 72 hours to areas hardest hit by the storm. And, because of the widespread loss of power across the region, their “kitchen on wheels” service was doubly critical as open restaurants were few and far between.

“We were going around the clock,” said Masi, who estimated that the Second Alarmers served more than 5,400 meals in a week, averaging about three or four hours of sleep per night on cots and assorted gym floors.

Their work was largely confined to the area of the Meadowlands complex, but during their deployment for the Jersey City four-alarm blaze they witnessed some of the storm’s devastation. Masi recalled that the city’s 911 response system suffered critical blows due to the storm, with loses to equipment and infrastructure. In addition, half of the city remained without power five days after the storm. 

“Lots of people were displaced and without heat,” he observed, and said that one of the biggest obstacles for both the public and first responders were the lines that surrounded gas stations, resulting in lines for blocks and attendant traffic issues.

“We needed a police escort just to get through,” said Masi. 

At work at home and out of state 

When it came to Hurricane Sandy, the Second Alarmers were present from the start, responding to a large and destructive second alarm fire in East Oak Lane on Oct. 30 that took firefighters several hours to place under control.

“We had a crew out for five hours in really difficult weather,” said Masi. “It was a busy evening for us.”

And it was a busy evening for the Philadelphia Fire Department as a whole: Alarm tones sounded continuously throughout the night for calls, many of which were in response to downed power lines and other obstructions.

Subsequent to the storm, the PFD dispatched its EMS Strike Team to Jersey City to provide medical support to city residents. As explained by PFD Executive Chief Richard Davison, the Strike Team consists of five medic units staffed by two PFD members along with supervisory personnel, in addition to other teams sent up from outside the city to assist.

Paul Schaetzle, treasurer of the Gong Club, a Jersey City-based canteen service with a similar mission as the Second Alarmers, praised their Philadelphia counterparts for their work.

“They worked hand in hand with us,” he said, and observed that the Second Alarmers received a couple of double-takes from Jersey City firefighters not used to seeing a Philadelphia organization at work in their city.

Rest and repeat 

While their original deployment was for four days, the Second Alarmers’ stay was extended to a week in preparation for the pending nor’easter storm.

Fortunately, Masi said, only an inch of snow fell, and they returned to Philadelphia on Friday, Nov. 9 to a hero’s reception at the Philadelphia Fire Academy, where fire cadets and department officials gave the Second Alarmers and returning PFD medic units a formal salute and a welcome-back reception.

“We were just doing our job,” said Masi, who was touched by the gesture. “We’re volunteers, so it was nice to come back with a good feeling.”

Asked what’s next for the Second Alarmers, Masi laughed and said, “Rest,” and then spoke about their next scheduled assignment, which will be providing EMT support for the Philadelphia Marathon this weekend.

“We’re right back in the mix,” said Masi. “We couldn’t ask for more.”

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