VIRGIL — They came down the hill with a rumble. Cries, catcalls, some laughter and a bit of ground shaking as six full-grown people each wearing 50 pounds of firefighter turnout gear went tubing at Greek Peak.
It taught planning. It taught teamwork and coordination.
Nobody’s kidding anyone: It taught fun.
Hundreds of volunteer firefighters from across New York pulled on their gear for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s 12th annual New York State Firefighter Winter Games.
“Tubing is not really training at all,” Cortlandville firefighter Eric Allen said as he walked with his team to the tubing hill.
“Well, there is the coordination,” countered Charlie Duffy. Their team came in fourth last year.
They turned to Capt. Joe Steinhoff to break the tie: “The biggest thing is teamwork and morale,” he said. That means it’s fun.
But that’s important, said association President Ken Pienkowski. Firefighters run into burning buildings, where smoke limits their vision to inches, where heat can roar past 1,400 degrees. They need to trust each other.
“It’s camaraderieship,” Pienkowski said.
The Marathon team rumbled down the hill a couple feet behind the other team, to be greeted by catcalls and trash talk. They were heads down as they headed off. Capt. Aric Ryan paused behind them.
“It’s fun, but we take it pretty seriously,” Ryan said. They’re a local team, and it’s a competition. Nobody wants to give away a strategy, but Ryan does hint that it involves a lot of pushing. Others try to balance weight on the tubes, and some pick air-efficient seating arrangements.
It’s particularly good for the younger ones, he said. “It gives them something a little bit lighter after firefighter boot camp,” he said. It’s a 170-hour program in Cortland County, and goes beyond the classroom.
And it lets them socialize with neighbor departments, Ryan added. Marathon, for example, exchanges mutual aid with Killawogg in Broome County. It’s good to see each other when they don’t have to worry about other people’s lives or safety.
And that’s good, too, said association Vice President Steven Klein of Oceanside. Mutual aid is a critical part of any department, and his covers a hamlet almost as populous as Cortland County. “The manpower problem is a statewide issue. That’s why we’re trying to get young people involved,” he said. “It’s the same all over.”
So as the firefighters debated over whether it was fun or training — not just tubing, but in a stokes basket carrying race, a tug-of-war, a geocache scavenger hunt and broomball tournament — there really was a larger purpose in getting to know someone on whom one’s life may depend.
“No matter where you go,” Pienkowski said, “by looking or talking, you’ll always learn something.”