After twenty-five years as a reporter and editor at The New York Times, Fred Andrews, now seventy, may have seemed an unlikely candidate for the Southampton Fire Department. That didn't stop him from joining up in 2005, making him the oldest rookie in the all-volunteer force's recorded history.
Andrews has lived in Southampton on the east end of Long Island, New York, for five years. Before joining the fire department, he'd never spent much time thinking about becoming a firefighter, he says. But after 9/11, when the good work of firefighters became the center of national attention, and after watching firefighters march in Southampton's annual Fourth of July parade, Andrews decided he'd look into it.
The department wasn't immediately responsive. Although Southampton has an upscale resort reputation, Andrews says in reality it's "basically a blue-collar community with a resort attached." Many of the village's firefighters come from families that have served the department for generations, and it can be difficult for newcomers to break in.
Andrews persisted and soon was completing the 107 hours of state-mandated training, both in the classroom and at the Suffolk County Fire Academy's boot camp. There he spent evenings climbing ladders, crawling through a maze blindfolded, and entering buildings with simulated fire conditions (actual smoke and, sometimes, flames). Often, he completed these exercises while wearing heavy gear.
Going into burning buildings is "a young person's game," says Andrews, so he works as what he calls "fire police," controlling traffic at the scenes of accidents and fires and helping the firefighters change their oxygen tanks. Though the force has seen its share of serious blazes, most of the calls they receive are false alarms or smaller fires started in trash bins or as the result of cooking problems, lightning, or other mishaps. The department also responds to motor-vehicle accidents.
Andrews says living in a small community without a single paid firefighter helps him appreciate the importance of the fire department. "You realize that's all you've got, so you have to put a lot into it," he says. "It's quite remarkable as a form of public service."
Recently, Andrews' own public service has extended into the political arena. Last year he was elected one of five commissioners of the Southampton Fire District, the body responsible for fire protection in the suburbs surrounding the village of Southampton.
A political-science major at Duke and a former editor of The Chronicle, Andrews still consults for the Times on various projects, serving as principal editor of the newspaper's ethical guidelines, among other roles. (For many years he was a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.)
While he calls his work there "a very good gig," Andrews says he hopes his time at the Southampton Fire Department continues well into the future. In addition to his new friends from the force, he says, he enjoys the physical aspects of the work. Plus, he says, "They say the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. And the fire department has some pretty expensive toys."
Fred Andrews '60
Putting out fires
January 31, 2009