May 3, 2011
Modesty, dedication earn fire chief praise
Larry Petrie has been part of the McGraw Fire Department for the past 35 years
McGRAW — Larry Petrie joined the McGraw Fire Department some 35 years ago because several of his friends belonged to it and he liked the idea of helping his community.
He did not grow up with a burning desire to be a firefighter. He did, however, like the volunteer work enough to keep doing it, getting elected a lieutenant, then third assistant chief for 1984 and finally chief for the 1992 term, succeeding Jay Cobb.
Petrie, 64, has remained chief ever since, except for the year 2000, when he decided to leave office. He changed his mind the next year and was elected, which means he has been chief for 19 of the past 20 years.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo marked that feat with a congratulatory letter to Petrie, dated April 20.
“I like the guys, I like being involved in the department,” said Petrie, 64, when asked why he had remained in charge of the fire department. He is part of a nucleus of veterans that blend with younger members.
Asked if he liked the letter from Cuomo, which was arranged by Leon Phelps, fire company president, Petrie said only, “I’m just doing the job they elected me to do.”
Phelps said Petrie’s leadership style is understated, open and modest, as he makes sure the department is running smoothly whether he is at a fire scene, fire company meeting or training session.
“Larry doesn’t have to say a lot, the scene kind of runs itself,” Phelps said. “He lets you use what you know. He cares about the people in the department, that’s what we thanked him for, through contacting the governor.”
Petrie said he tries to be open about department operations and make sure everyone’s opinions are heard.
He has presided over a firefighting force smaller than it was when he started, when it had 100 firefighters who formed two companies Now the department has 45 members and one company.
“We used to have a cap on membership, at 100, with a wait list. Those days are gone,” Petrie said.
Petrie said the lower membership is a result of fewer employers in the village, as industries have closed in the past decade. This means fewer people are within easy reach of the station on West Center Street during the day to cover shifts.
There are fewer young people to take over, and other people do not have time for the 150 hours of initial training required by New York state for a firefighter. Training for an emergency medic is about the same.
Firefighters have to go through new training when state or FEMA requirements change.
“It’s a large commitment,” Petrie said. “This is a problem. We rely a lot on mutual aid from Cortlandville.”
Petrie has been able to find the money for new equipment over the years. The pumpers are 1992 and 1997 models, outfitted with 5-inch hose that replaced the old 3-inch. The tanker is newer, a 2001 model. The large truck is a 2006 model mounted on a 1987 chassis purchased from the Enfield Fire Department.
The department received two $80,000 grants in 2003 and 2004 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, written by Petrie and used to purchase radios, air packs, hose and other gear.
The department’s next project is replacing the 1981 fire rescue truck. FEMA declined a grant application to replace the truck, saying it was not as essential as a pumper. Petrie said the chassis alone for a new rescue truck would cost $150,000.
The department’s $75,000 annual budget comes from McGraw fire district taxpayers plus contracts with Cortlandville, Solon and Freetown.
Phelps said the chief has proven adept at a time-consuming part of his job: filling out and filing paperwork that FEMA demands. He often works on the paperwork at night, in the fire station office.
Petrie does not remember many individual fires, accidents or other situations that stand out from his more than three decades in the department. He admits he is fairly calm in any crisis, from his experience and from four years in Navy aviation.
Petrie runs his own business out of his house, as an independent contractor for a designer of embedded computer software and hardware. He has two children and two stepchildren.
But the fire department becomes like his second home.
“Apparently I’ve been doing good as chief,” he said. “Nobody’s been running against me. Nobody wants the job, I guess.”
“He’s the kind of chief you need,” Phelps said.
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