Looking back at his logs from over a half-century of firefighting, James Drumm figures that he has participated in about 4,000 fire responses and 3,000 ambulance responses.
“The difference between an ‘ambulance call’ and a ‘fire call’ is primarily, we get a lot of calls as firefighters that are nuisance calls, like a defective smoke detector or fire alarm, or false alarms,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a nuisance call for the ambulance corps. When you get a call for an ambulance, you know someone’s in trouble.”
Helping prevent trouble and saving those in the midst of it have kept Drumm busy since 1967. The 88-year-old retired as village fire inspector on Jan. 15, after 26 years in that job, but he’s still an active member of the Hastings Volunteer Fire Department. At the Riverview Manor firehouse, Drumm holds the title of deputy chief, but also served as chief twice over the years.
In recognition of his retirement and his service to the fire department, the Hastings Village Board proclaimed Jan. 20 “James Drumm Day.” At the Jan. 19 board meeting, held over Zoom, Fire Chief John Lindner observed, “Jim really is responsible for the lack of major fires in this village, because of his enforcement of the codes and working with the building department and homeowners to correct issues, and therefore making the village a much safer place.”
In an interview on Jan. 24, Drumm said the physical demands of the fire inspector’s job caught up with him. “It’s a job that does require climbing ladders, walking along on two-by-fours, or walking up stairs with no handrails… It’s a younger man’s job, that’s for sure.”
Alan Harmon, first lieutenant at Riverview Manor, will succeed him as fire inspector.
Drumm will continue to do administrative and clerical chores around the firehouse and will respond to calls as a “fire policeman.” The fire police are a unit of firefighters, mostly retired from active duty, who are peace officers sworn in by New York State. They handle traffic and crowd control at fire scenes.
“A lot of things can go wrong on a fire ground that have nothing to do with smoke or getting injured,” Drumm explained. “There are cars all over the place, people are running over hoses, climbing up on fire trucks.”
Drumm was named the Hastings Fire Department’s firefighter of the year in 2007. He has also been active in other local groups, as a member of the planning and zoning boards in the 1970s, and as a Little League coach in the 1980s.
Born in upstate Ilion, he served in the Marine Corps from 1955-57 and its reserves for the next six years. He moved his family to Hastings in 1962 to take a job as a programmer-analyst for Geigy Chemical on Saw Mill River Road, now home to the Ardsley Park Science and Technology Center. He worked for Geigy, and then its successor, Ciba-Geigy, for 30 years, becoming manager of office technology.
“I lived off Jackson Avenue for the first four years, then Euclid, and now Maple Avenue,” he said. He and his wife, Barbara Feldman, have seven children and 13 grandchildren.
When he joined Riverview Manor Hose Company #3, “Geography was one reason,” he said. “I lived two houses from the fire station on Euclid Avenue, and I thought it would be a good idea to give my kids an idea of role identification. It’s a lot easier for kids to get an idea of what their father does if he’s a fireman, than if he’s a systems analyst. I wanted to do something for the community, and I wanted to do something exciting.”
He didn’t have to wait long for excitement. An alarm came in from Saw Mill River Road, where the Sand Rock Restaurant was on fire. “That was one of my first large-structure fires,” Drumm said. “I’m pretty sure it was a ‘torch job,’ and it was quite dramatic. You don’t forget fires like that.”
In the 1980s, “There was a fire in the first house I ever lived in in that area, and we lost the house,” he said. “Losing a house when you’re a fire chief — and losing a house where you lived, when you’re a fire chief — is pretty embarrassing. We’re pretty sure it was arson.”
Two residents died in a 2002 fire on Warburton Avenue, just north of Washington Avenue. “I would say probably once every eight or 10 years, we have a structure fire as bad as that,” he said. “Most of our structure fires now are put out or controlled very fast, but there’s always the possibility, or the probability, that you’ll have a structure fire right around the corner, and you have to be prepared for that.”
The incidents in which there’s loss of life are indelible. “Since I’ve been a member of the fire department we’ve had a total of eight fatal fires, with a total of 11 fatalities. You never forget those, and the ones you remember the most were when you lost a fellow firefighter.”
Drumm became Hastings’ fire inspector in 1994. It’s a paid, part-time position that requires certification by New York State, after taking a six-week course on the state Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, and periodic refresher courses.
The code was created after two catastrophic fires in the 1970s, one in Port Chester and the other in Purchase, where a total of more than 50 people died. At that time, there were no consistent regulations across the state requiring buildings to have certain safeguards against fire. But after the outcry related to those two fires, “New York State developed the Uniform Code... the bible we have to follow as fire inspectors,” Drumm said. When arson is suspected, the local fire inspector works with Westchester County’s “cause and origin team,” looking for signs of accelerants being used to start a fire, and trying to pinpoint where a fire started.
“It’s not like the old days, when a fire inspector could be the mayor’s cousin,” Drumm said. “Now it’s much more proactive... you have to tell people to do things they don’t ordinarily want to do. Hopefully by the end of your career, your friends outnumber your enemies by 51 to 49. Diplomacy is extremely important.”