KEENE - For the past three decades, one of the main constants in Jody Whitney's life has been the Keene Volunteer Fire Department.
The 49-year-old fire chief, who grew up in the town of Keene, joined the organization "fresh out of high school."
"I believe I was asked by my cousin, and I've been here every since," said Whitney, whose five brothers and two sisters all live locally.
Keene Fire Chief Jody Whitney stands in front of the Keene Fire Department’s building on state Route 73. The longtime member and chief played a leading role in getting the building constructed. (Photo — Mike Lynch)
Whitney, who recently retired from the state Department of Corrections, has been fire chief since 1995. During that time, he's faced many stressful situations and challenges. One of the biggest - if not the biggest - was in August 2011 when the firehouse was severely damaged by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene.
After the storm, the fire department determined it needed a new building and location. So Whitney and other local and state officials went to work on meeting those needs. Today, they have a new building that stands on state Route 73 across the street from Stewart's Shops, having officially opened in June 2013.
Getting the building constructed and moved has created a lot of work for the volunteer chief.
"It's occupied all of my time, and I'm still today working on some things," he said.
But the effort has been a good learning experience. It's also provided the fire
department with a more modern building that suits the department's needs.
"We have space that we didn't have before," Whitney said. "We were in a confined building. Vehicles were stacked on top of each other. You couldn't walk between them. No office space. No meeting room. No EMS office. It was really tiny for the size we are at. Just the overall size has really been helpful.
"We're very grateful. We're grateful for New York state to come in. They helped us rebuild this place and (Federal Emergency Management Agency). As hard as it is to work with some of things you have to work with, I'm very pleased with the way things have worked out."
Having the new building in place allows the fire department and Whitney to focus on their most important task - helping people. That means fighting fires, responding to motor vehicle accidents and assisting with backcountry rescues in the nearby mountains - at all hours of the day.
Asked if he finds the work rewarding, Whitney said, "That's a hard question. Most of the time you are responding to something, it's not nice. It's usually when some one is in trouble or it's tragedy that their housing is burning.
"One of the most rewarding things I can think of is after I became an (emergency medical technician about 10 years ago). ... We had a call where we were able to save someone with a defibrillator. That's probably the most rewarding call and today as far as I know is still living."
One of the ongoing challenges that the fire departments in Keene and surrounding areas are facing is a depleted volunteer crew. There are a few reasons for the decline, including that volunteerism is down nationwide and training requirements are demanding.
"We're at an all-time low right now," Whitney said. "Normally, we run 20-24 people. We're under 20 now."
In part because of the small size of the fire crew, the Keene department has developed a strong relationship with the neighboring Keene Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
"People just don't want to volunteer, so we have to work together," he said. "I think that's actually helped us as far as that goes. We have a really good working relationship with them. Like anything else, at different points through the years, it's been harder; but right now I think it's been the easiest and the best relationship we've ever had."
The departments collaborate in different ways. For instance, Keene Valley leads backcountry rescues while Keene responds to area emergencies that require the Jaws of Life.
The relationships also extend outside of fire department duties. Whitney, who enjoys hunting in his spare time, went on an elk hunting trip with Keene Valley Fire Department Chief Rusty Hall and several others in Washington state last November. It was Whitney's first elk hunting experience and a successful one for him.
But Whitney not only has close friends in the fire department; his family members are also a part of the organization, including his wife, Carolyn, and brother, Reginald. Plus, his children have been volunteers, although they don't live locally now. His daughter Lindsey lives near Seattle, Wash., and son Cody is attending college at SUNY Brockport. Volunteering is definitely something the fire chief supports.
"That's something I would like to encourage people to do - to get out and help the community," Whitney said. "If they have any inspiration at all, to try to help, come see what happens here and reward yourself. It's nice to have a family member thank you. And that's what we do it for."