Ronald Tedesco, a firefighter at the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, returns the fire truck’s metal circular saw after inspecting it.

WESTHAMPTON BEACH — For many people, providing support for U.S. Air Force aircraft missions, as well as national and local disasters, sounds like a movie role.

For New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs (DMNA) firefighters working at the Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Suffolk County, that support is the crux of their position.

The firefighters, who are also CSEA Long Island State Employees Local members, play a crucial role in keeping their community safe.

“We staff the Air Force station in case something goes wrong and the pilots have to return to the airport,” said DMNA Firefighter Ronald Tedesco.

In that case, the DMNA members are trained to shut down the aircraft and extract the pilots.

Because New York state does not have an aircraft firefighting training school, state firefighters are U.S. Air Force veterans and have served in the U.S. Air National Guard. The training the members get through the military posts quality them to become state firefighters.

Oscar Cerda, a firefighter at the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, checks the state fire truck’s booster line nozzle, a small hose that is used on small fires. Every day, firefighters must check the equipment to ensure all parts are fully operational.

“We have firefighters like myself who are solely state employees and other firefighters that have dual status as New York state employees and Air National Guard members,” said DMNA Firefighter Oscar Cerda.

Key defense role

While state firefighters respond to emergencies on behalf of the state, dual status firefighters are emergency responders for both the state and the U.S. Department of Defense [DoD]. This status has taken some members into military duty overseas, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

When an emergency arises, dual status firefighters are given a Title 10 of the United States Code, which grants them active military status.

For the code to be enacted, either the governor calls a state of emergency, which would give members state National Guard status, or the federal government calls the base to request a certain number of firefighters to be transferred to the national active duty force for a designated amount of time.

Members are given a few months’ notice before they are transferred to the location in need. When the DMNA members return to the United States, they go back to work as state guards members.

One of the more high-profile assignments CSEA New York state firefighters worked on is Space Shuttle mission STS 101 to the International Space Station, a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Francis S. Gabreski Airport was one of several emergency landing locations for the mission.

“This wasn’t long before the last Kennedy Space Center launch,” said Tedesco. “We trained how to get the astronauts out of the top hatch if something went wrong, how to shut down the space shuttle and a lot of other things to perform a rescue.”

The group was also called on for Hurricane Katrina rescue and recovery efforts.

In June 2023, it was an all hands-on-deck situation at the airport when DMNA workers were part of a days-long search for group of tourists and crew members who went missing in the Atlantic Ocean while on a submersible tour to see the Titanic wreckage.

As for more local emergencies, DMNA firefighters have rescued passengers on airplanes that have crashed on or near the base. They also have a mutual aid agreement with the Suffolk County Fire Rescue Emergency Services [FRES] that allows members to provide aid to FRES firefighters in the airport’s surrounding area, including helping with response to major vehicle accidents in which people need to be retrieved from wreckage.

With the stakes so high, the workers note that they sometimes feel emotionally taxed. When that happens, they find solace in each other.

“We have professional counseling available to us, but the best counseling is sitting at the table with your peers,” said Cerda. “We understand what our colleagues are going through; it helps to speak to someone who understands.”

The peer support is also important, as the firefighters must always cover the base.

“There always has to be firefighters at the base,” said Cerda. “We spend holidays and birthdays together. We’re a family.”

— Wendi Bowie


About Author

Wendi Bowie is an award-winning journalist who has focused the majority of her career on covering Long Island news. Her efforts have earned her the Press Club of Long Island Media Award for Public Affairs and the Long Island Coalition for Fair Broadcasting Folio Award. Wendi was drawn to her current position as Communications Specialist for CSEA’s Long Island Region because it speaks to her strong desire to champion the rights of the common man and woman.

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