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Genesee County firefighters reflect on shooting in Webster prior to funeral for a brother

By Howard B. Owens

Shock, horrified, disbelief, these were the words that came to mind to some of the volunteer firefighters from Genesee County who assembled at the Bergen Fire Hall this morning before heading to Webster for a funeral service for Lt. Mike Chiapperini.

Chiapperini was one of two volunteers from the West Webster Fire Department murdered Christmas Eve while responding to a fire call on Lake Road.

The inexplicable ambush has affected firefighters over the entire nation, but especially in Western New York, where friendships often cross district lines.

The other important word this morning was "brotherhood."

"This effects us deeply," said James Bridges, assistant chief with the Bergen Volunteer Fire Department. "You just never know what you're walking into, what might happen. This is a brotherhood. We're all brothers. We are a team. When something happens to an individual, it happens to everybody."

Bridges knew Chiapperini. They worked together for about 15 years, Bridges said, while Bridges was on patrol and a fire investigator for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. Chiapperini worked for the Webster Police Department.

"He was a great guy, a fun guy to be around," Bridges said. "He always had your back."

Volunteers serve to aid their communities, to help people.  You would just never expect to be a target, the firefighters said.

"We know what we do is dangerous, but most of those dangers we can control," said Bill Schutt, deputy fire coordinator for the West Battalion. "This is a danger you can’t control. You don’t even think about it when you’re responding to a call.  The fact that it comes out of the blue, it’s not something you would ever think about when you’re responding to a call most times."

That may not change the way volunteers do their jobs, Schutt and others said, but it's something that cannot easily be forgotten.

"I’m sure there are people who haven’t got to calls since Christmas Eve because of it, because that thought was in the back of their minds or the back of their wives' minds or kids' minds," Schutt said.

The idea that there might be a sniper at an emergency scene isn't something firefighters can readily prepare for, the way a police officer might. Schutt said it's not like firefighters are going to start wearing bulletproof vests or riot gear to fire scenes.

Tim Yaeger, fire coordinator for Genesee County, said responders probably need to be alert for dangers, but then, that's been the case since 9/11.

"We face hazards every time we go on a call," Yaeger said. "One hundred firefighters die every year in the line of duty, but never did we think gunfire from an assailant would be something we would ever consider as well. It puts a different perspective on our job. I don't think we're going to do our jobs any differently. We're just going to be as aware as we possibly can of our surroundings every time we go out the door."

That heightened awareness, Yeager said, has to really be part of a firefighter's life ever since 9/11.

"In Genesee County we know we're not the direct target of an international terrorist,  but it’s the homegrown folks, some bad people out there, that we’re worried about and I'd don't think it changes how we do our jobs. We just need to be very, very cautious every time we go on a fire run or EMS job."

Fire chiefs are responsible for the safety of their men and women and the shooting deaths of Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka was too shocking to really comprehend, said Don Newton, chief of the East Pembroke Volunteer Fire Department.

"It's unimaginable," Newton said. "To think your community and your district and your department can put out the money they do for volunteers and the support you get from your community ... and somebody could commit a senseless act on somebody who is there unarmed ...  I don’t know how to grasp it."

Newton said he didn't know how he would deal with the actual funeral.

"I’m going to be honest with you," Newton said. "When it happens in our own department, just a member passing away, I take it really hard, so I just don’t know how this is going to go over with me. I don’t like wearing my class A uniform for things like this, but unfortunately this is part of life now. We’ve got to keep going on."

Ben Fisher, a firefighter with the Town of Batavia Volunteer Fire Department, said he was a little apprehensive about going to the funeral. He took it hard, he said, when he heard about the murders.

"I was heartbroken, to be honest with you," Fisher said. "I was crying. I’m going to be honest with you. You might as well be losing family. It’s a brotherhood. I may not have known them, but obviously we’re all in it for the same reason. It’s like losing a family member."

Like the other volunteers, Fisher said he just can't comprehend why firefighters would be targeted by a sniper.

"What would possess you to shoot somebody who is just coming to help you?" Fisher said.

The shooting was terrifying, said Capt. Christine Marinaccio, Le Roy Volunteer Fire Department.

"It’s just the thought you’re going out there, you’re going to respond to a general call, and it’s something that you would never think would happen," Marinaccio said.

East Pembroke firefighter Destin Danser said he was horrified when he heard the news, and sad and angry.

"I'm going today to show respect," Danser said. "From what I know about the guys who were out there, if it were me who was down, they would be here for me. I want to show them that respect, too."

Photo: Yaeger briefs firefighters on transportation plans to the funeral.

Mark Brudz

There are just some things that are totally inexplicable, the murder of children and the murder of volunteers are high among them.

Rest In Peace Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka your sacrifice is one that touches us all.

Our responders risk their lives in so many ways, everyday, every evening rain or shine, they truly did not deserve this.

What they do deserve, as well as all of our first responders is unbridled gratitude and all of our prayers.

Dec 30, 2012, 2:39pm Permalink

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