Firefighter goes where he’s needed – from the WTC to Lolo

By Sally Mauk Ravalli Republic

Firefighter goes where he’s needed – from the WTC to Lolo

Elite firefighters lead a nomadic life during fire season, being deployed wherever they’re needed. One of the upsides of reporting on major forest fires is you get to meet people from all over the country.

Let me tell you about one of them who was recently assigned to the Lolo Creek Complex fire.

Ron Spadafora is an assistant chief with the New York City Fire Department. The stocky, mustached 59-year-old has been a New York City firefighter for 35 years. He was one of the first responders on 9/11.

“I arrived on the scene, the North tower had just collapsed,” said Spadafora. “We were trying to organize our troops. I was involved with World Trade Center 7, which came down a couple of hours later. … I was in that building providing recon for our units to determine whether we wanted to commit to try to put out the fire.”

The decision was made not to fight that fire, which saved a lot more firefighters from being killed. Still, 343 New York City firefighters died that day. Spadafora had trained many of them, and estimates he knew at least half of those who died. But on the day of the attack, he had no inkling of the scope of the tragedy.

“We had a few survivors from the collapse we were working to try to extricate from the rubble,” said Spadafora. “So I was a little busy in regards to trying to know who was killed. We had no idea the first day or two in regards to the numbers – how many were killed.”

Spadafora went to a lot of funerals but not all. Again, he was busy. He was the site safety officer at the World Trade Center for eight months during the recovery, working 12 hours a day, six days a week.

“It didn’t allow me to attend as many funerals as I could have,” said Spadafora. “I felt that doing the work and trying to provide recovery for those people, both civilians as well as uniformed personnel, trying to recover any types of remains for those families was a way that I could give back.”

Among those who arrived to help was a Forest Service incident command team. The 9/11 attack revealed a lot of problems with FDNY’s ability to respond to a mass event – everything from radios not working to poor organization. The Forest Service said they could help, but the New York City firefighters were skeptical at first.

“The chief officer was looking at the Forest Service personnel, and he said, ‘Where are you guys from?’ and they said ‘We’re from the Forest Service,’” said Spadafora. “He looked at their patch and he said, ‘Do you see any trees around here? How can you help us?’ And the guy goes, ‘Well we have something called an incident command system. … and that can help you.’ So the chief said, ‘We’ll give you a chance.’”

FDNY has been using the system ever since. And that’s why Spadafora was in Lolo recently at the Lolo Creek Complex incident command center – learning more about how the incident command team functions during a crisis. Spadafora first came to a Montana fire in 2003, to work the Robert fire in Glacier National Park. He’d never camped out before.

“I’d never seen so many trees in such close proximity to each other, living in New York all my life,” chuckled Spadafora. “I’m not a camping person, fishing person, hunting person – so it was completely different from anything I’ve ever seen. … I had some people from the Alaska team who were up there show me how to pitch the tent. And then they started talking about bears and rattlesnakes, so I was a little nervous at first about what I was getting into.”

9/11 changed many people and many things. For Spadafora, it reinforced his commitment to being a firefighter. At one time he thought about another profession but not after that day.

“After that day, I was very happy I settled on being in the fire service,” said Spadafora. “I felt like I made more of a commitment to the fire service and helping the public. I was just proud to be in the fire service. The guys gave the ultimate sacrifice, and it just showed the nature of firefighters in general. It’s all about giving, it’s all about service, not really thinking about heroics or personal issues, it’s basically about serving the public. So I was very proud of my profession moving forward.”

As are we.

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