The healing continues for the Owego Fire Department; though the Jan. 21 death in the line of duty of Captain Matthew Porcari is something that the department will never get over, according to Owego Fire Chief Ed Franz. There's just no way to fill the void in the department in the wake of Porcari's passing, he explained.
"The best way is to get it out, to talk about it," Franz said, "but it won't be resolved quickly. Things can come out at any time. In my 55 years in the department, including serving on the squad, to this day things I've seen come out. I can tell you it's true."
To help members of the Owego and Newark Valley Fire Departments adapt to the new normal after Porcari lost his life, Franz said he has been working very closely with the Newark Valley Fire Department to bring four members from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) to Newark Valley and Owego through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The FDNY members lost many comrades on Sept. 11, 2001, and will share how they got through the loss they suffered.
The FDNY survivor's visit is not a public event, but a private event exclusively for firefighters. Franz would not share the date of the visit or where the meetings would be held, and only mentioned it as one of the ways Newark Valley and Owego are helping their members, and their fellow firefighters throughout the close-knit community of volunteers who answer the call in Tioga County.
Franz added that the response from all fire departments in the county has been great, and very sympathetic. "There's a strong binding between us, stronger than in the past," Franz said.
Nearly 10 years has passed since the last time Owego lost a member during a response to a call for aid from the public. Steve Gavin died in 2003. His son, Daniel Gavin, was injured in the same house fire that claimed the life of his friend Porcari. Franz said that Gavin was doing well, physically mending while dealing with the double trauma of losing his father and friend in the line of duty.
Before the elder Gavin, Franz recalled the last fatality of a firefighter in Owego was Guy Pollard, who died while battling a house fire. Pollard was answering a mutual aid call in Owego, and was a member of the Newark Valley Fire Department.
"Everyone in the county, please keep firefighters in your prayers," Franz said, "fire and emergency medical services are both dangerous jobs." All of the county's fire departments rely mostly on volunteers, Franz said, though some departments like Owego have paid EMS personnel on duty during the day. All of the men and women who give their time to keep the community safe spend much more time training than they do answering calls, according to Franz.
"The hours these guys go through is tremendous," Franz said.
Last year Owego answered the call for help 2,180 times, and has responded to nearly 280 calls so far in 2013 according to Franz. "Visitors from other departments outside the county are astounded by the number of calls we answer," Franz added. "They always say 'and you're all volunteers?' Tioga County had 7,000 calls last year, and Owego answered over 2,000 of them. We're a very busy department."
Franz' long career has been punctuated by his most recent stint as the department's chief during the last two years. Franz oversaw the response to the 2011 flood, and what he calls the hardest thing he has had to deal with is the tragic death of Porcari. Franz said he won't run for a second term as chief when the department decides later this year who will be their chief.
"At the end of May my term is up, on the first of June the new chief will take over," Franz said.
In the meantime, his department is overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy and support from all across the United States and the world. Franz said that each card or letter is being replied to. A pleasant surprise has been the number of people who have volunteered to serve in Owego's fire department, six new members and five returning members in the last month. Franz is especially grateful for that, and said all of the county's departments are in need of volunteers.