October 26, 2021

‘It’s in the blood’

Shenandoah Briere/contributing photographer

Cortland City firefighter Brandon Casterline (left) and his father, Capt. Tom Casterline, are the third and fourth generations of their family to serve in the department. Pictures, newspaper clippings and the certificate on the table are of Capt. Kenneth Casterline Jr., the second generation of firefighters. The family’s history at the department spans as far back as the mid-1900s.

Growing up, Brandon Casterline would ride his bike a few blocks to the Cortland City Fire Department’s Franklin Street station.

He’d hang out with the firefighters, talking to them and listening to the stories they told.

Today, Casterline, 29, is the fourth generation of his family to be a firefighter at the city fire department, a tradition going back 70 years.

His great-grandfather Kenneth Casterline Sr. started when the department was an all-volunteer service in the late 1940s. Grandfather Kenneth Casterline Jr., joined as a volunteer in 1955 and continued as a paid firefighter, including time as captain and assistant chief, from 1959 to 1990, then returned to volunteer service until his death in 1999.

Brandon’s father, Capt. Tom Casterline, joined as volunteer in 1979 before becoming a paid firefighter in 1995, where he still serves.

Then there’s Brandon, who began as a volunteer in 2010 and became a paid firefighter in 2014.

The Henry family in Cortlandville also has a long-standing commitment to fire service, eight firefighters over four generations: Gerald, son Gary, grandsons Garrick, Gere and Jason and Gere Henry’s sons, Auston Hammond and Seth, and Garrick Henry’s son, Josh.

Tom Casterline said he doesn’t feel it’s uncommon to see generations of families as firefighters. “It’s in the blood,” he said.

Nobody keeps numbers, but it’s growing less common, especially for volunteer departments, said John D’Alessandro, secretary of the Firemen’s Association for the State of New York.

Legacy recruiting

Volunteer departments make up 70% to 80% of the fire service in New York. Once, legacy recruiting — getting the next generation to join the fire service — was common, especially in rural areas, D’Alessandro said, particularly where the volunteer fire department was at the center of the social life. “Volunteer fire departments cannot count of legacy recruiting like they once did,” he said. “It’s kind of a rare occasion now where you might see multiple people from the same family becoming firefighters.”

However, D’ Alessandro said, there’s little data on the topic.

“None of this is absolute,” he said, noting Cortland could very well be a blip in data.

Legacy recruiting still happens in paid departments, said Sam Fresina, the president of the New York State Professional Firefighters Association.

He said he sees brothers become firefighters as much as he sees fathers and sons. “A lot of people look up to their parents and want to follow in their footsteps,” he said.

Location, location, location, said Gere Henry, now the deputy chief in Cortlandville.

“The city of Cortland can go to Cortland’s high school, McGraw can go to McGraw High School, Homer can go to Homer High School and kind of draw them in,” he said. Cortlandville doesn’t have any school in its service area. “So, we can’t go to the schools and say ‘hey come join Cortlandville’ because we don’t have any schools in our area.”

That’s why the department relies so much on getting family members to join.

A second home, a second family

Tom Casterline remembers when the city fire department would have shift picnics. Firefighters’ families would head to a park and spend hours talking, eating and having fun.

“I think that helps bring everybody in,” he said. “Everyone’s talking about what they’ve done at the firehouse and I think that helps bring the younger generation in.”

A second family, Brandon Casterline called it. And a big family at that, Gere Henry said.

Gere Henry would ride with his dad to the station and stay there washing the trucks. He got to know the firefighters and that drew him to join.

Gary Henry said he used to have his kids at the station so much they were around when calls came in and would sometimes tag along, “so they could see what’s going on.”

FASNY President Steve Klein said fire departments become a part of a person’s life, even in childhood.

“It’s really a natural transition,” he said.

“Once you are exposed to the family atmosphere of the fire department and the camaraderie and the support you see from everybody — I mean who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” Brandon Casterline said.

Times have changed

From what the firefighters wear and the tools they use to the training required, much has changed.

“I remember seeing in our house where I grew up an old rubber raincoat that was a firefighter’s gear and an old helmet,” Tom Casterline said. “I don’t know if that was something my father wore in the ‘50s or his grandfather.”

When the oldest Casterline served in the mid-1900s, firefighters didn’t use air tanks. They didn’t arrive until the second generation — Kenneth Casterline Jr.’s years. Now, firefighters don’t go in a burning or smoke-filled house without one.

And training has changed. Once it was catch-as-catch can for the first couple of Casterline generations. When Tom joined, it was six weeks at an academy. When Brandon joined, it was 15 weeks at the academy.

“I think it’s even longer now,” Brandon said.

The job is more demanding, Fresina said. Firefighters must have more trianing to understand how to handle hazardous material, what to do in extreme weather situations and they now handle more medical calls than in years before.

On top of that, people’s lives have become more demanding. It takes a couple of incomes to pay the bills and put food on the table, Fresina said. “A lot of people don’t have enough time to work the number of hours that they have to to pay the bills, spend time with their kids and put in hours for fire certification.”

That’s why many younger generations get involved as volunteers first, then use that experience to get a paid firefighting job, he said.

D’Alessandro said the decline of legacy generations, particularly in volunteer departments, could be reflection of an ever-changing society.

People leave communities, particularly in upstate New York, to seek economic opportunity, he said. They can’t follow the family footsteps from three states away.

And if people are too busy to join, their families will never have the opportunity to share the fire stories and gain the second family a fire department can become.

Meeting expectations, missing dinners

There are advantages and disadvantages to being the fourth generation in a family, Brandon Casterline said.

“The advantage is you already know everyone here, but there’s always the disadvantage of I’m always trying to live up to my past generations,” he said. “ There’s always that standard that you’re trying to live up to and trying to meet and you never want to disappoint not only your boss but your family.” His father understands.

“You always want your father to be proud of you,” Tom Casterline said. “You just want to live up to that expectation, so you always strive to do your best.”

D’Alessandro said having multiple family members in the fire service does raise the fear of, “My god, if something goes terribly wrong my whole family is there.”

But Fresina said that’s also an advantage of having a relative in a department — you get to know the ins and outs of the job.

“You can see how it affects them,” he said. “You hear a lot of the stories. You hear about what happened at work today. You hear the personal side. You’re not guessing what a day in the firehouse might be like.”

Another downside, D’Alessandro said: You can always count on a call coming in while everyone is settling down for a holiday meal.

“That’s happened before,” Gary Henry said.

“A holiday, a call comes in, it’s clearing 95% of the room,” Gere Henry added.