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East Syracuse: Two centuries of fire service

Gary Fritcher, Ron Russell, Bill Cramer and Bill Lewis are all active volunteer firefighters at the East Syracuse Fire Department. All four have served their community for more than 50 years, and each man has his own story to tell.

"When I joined they had rubber coats and a metal hat and they were left on the trucks," said Russell, a 60-year fire veteran. "When a fire call would come, you got on the truck and got dressed on the way going [to the fire] or when you got there."

Laughing, he said he ruined a lot of clothes in those days and his wife used to get annoyed.

"Someone who wore them before you may not have cleaned them," he said. "Now, every firefighter in our department is assigned his own equipment. You get dressed prior to going."

That's just one of several memories the men shared while talking about the good ol' days.

"A lot has improved," said Fritcher, a member of the fire department since 1954.

He recalled the early air packs as comprised of a small canister with a mask.

"You'd wear it as a pouch," he said. "You had to punch a hole in it to get the moisture going so it would change to air."

Firefighters used to ride on the sides and back of the truck, too, which completely exposed them to all types of weather.

"You'd get pretty wet or cold, one or the other," Russell said.

"And watery eyes," added Cramer, who has been fighting fires for 51 years.

Firefighters even used to fall off the trucks -- which is the main reason why trucks are now enclosed.

Not one of the four said they missed those trips.

Highs and lows

Ninety-year-old Bill Lewis joined the department 72 years ago in 1935. Not only did he fight fires, he was also one of the first medics in Upstate New York.

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