After serving for about 10 years over the past two decades as the president of Chatham Township’s volunteer fire department, Gary Sagendorf stepped down in January to “get some fresh faces to help run the organization.”
“I think organizations need change at the leadership level,” Sagendorf said. “It was time for me personally and quite a bit of a time commitment.”
With two eventful terms—one filled with town-wide tension and the other bookended by the — under his belt, Sagendorf said he is happy to hand over his responsibilities to new president Jamie Sara.
As Sagendorf explains it, while the chief is in charge of the fire fighting aspect of the organization, the department’s president is ultimately responsible for the non-profit, or the business side. This includes overseeing the department’s finances and fundraising efforts.
“We all do this in our spare time,” Sagendorf said, “but invariably you end up having to take time out of your work day to run the organization.”
Joining the Department
Growing up almost right across the street from the firehouse on River Road, with its alarm going off at all hours of the day whenever there was a call, made it almost impossible to avoid joining.
“When you lived across the street and firemen had a call at 2 a.m., everybody woke up,” Sagendorf said. “There was just no escaping it.”
But what Sagendorf said really helped him to decide to join at age 18 in 1983 was having two older brothers and a father who were members, the latter of whom served the department for 45 years before his death in 2007.
“I had the unique experience of growing up down there,” Sagendorf said. “I was able to walk down there to where the guys had calls and just get to know a lot of guys back then who are all the old-timers now.”
Managing to stay active in college up in Boston, Sagendorf said the close feeling among his friends at the firehouse was what brought him home.
“I never thought I’d come back home,” he said. “But it was really the camaraderie, the feeling of being at home at the firehouse, which brought me back to my hometown.”
Gravitating Toward the Business Side
Sagendorf said he doesn’t do anywhere near the amount of interior fire fighting work he used to do when he first joined the department in high school after going through all the necessary training and frequently answering calls.
Although this is partially due to devoting so much time and effort to the business side, he said it also comes down to what a person’s interest level happens to be.
“It’s funny,” Sagendorf said. “People don’t join the fire department to run the business side of the operation.”
After being in the department for 27 years, it was something toward which he eventually ended up gravitating.
His business duties began when he was in college in Boston, writing and sending out the department newsletter once a month from campus.
After finishing college and returning home, Sagendorf’s administrative duties increased, with terms as vice president and treasurer sandwiched by his two stints as president.
He said that his interest in the administrative side has also been helped by the parallel responsibilities of his full-time job as the chief operating officer of a small medical education company in Parsippany.
But despite his duties as president, he is still able to go on calls occasionally, although he said the skills shown by some of the younger guys on the squad is way more impressive than anything he did when he was younger.
“These kids are so into it, and they try so hard,” Sagendorf said. “I’m in awe of them, to be quite honest. A lot of them want to use it as a springboard because they want to do this full-time.”
The First Time Around
The department, as well as its financial situation, has changed dramatically since Sagendorf’s first turn as president from 1993 to 1999.
In 1993, the department had just torn down its firehouse and built a new one on River Road, putting it in slight financial straits.
Essentially, Sagendorf said, they had a mortgage to worry about and were trying to buy two fire trucks to replace ones they had acquired in the ‘70s.
As a result, they embarked on a public education campaign to try to influence residents and the Township committee to help the department out financially. Sagendorf said they had tried to pitch a fair share program to put fire protection in the taxes, “at least our budget, not turn over the keys, so to speak.”
“Back then, we didn’t have the good relationship with the Township committee that we have today,” he said. “It was very politically charged. We even had a role in getting the mayor at the time booted out.”
The township department also had a rocky relationship at the time with the Green Village volunteer department, exemplified when WABC-TV, the New York ABC affiliate, did a story highlighting the heated funding debate between the two departments.
“Basically, we were saying we needed to be treated like our neighbors in other municipalities,” Sagendorf said. “We’re firefighters, not fundraisers.”
The Times Have Changed
Fortunately, he said, the relationship with the committee, the Green Village department and Township residents has changed dramatically for the better over the last 15 years.
“The Township is very generous with us,” he said. “They provide us with a certain amount of money each year. On top of that, they cover our insurance and buy the fire trucks, which, until 1998, they did not do.”
The two entities even partnered up on the $1.1 million construction project for the Southern Boulevard firehouse, for which the town put up $800,000 in bonds and the department paid the rest.
Despite the shift in financial for the department over the years, Sagendorf clarified that the department still has to raise more than $100,000 a year to keep up with its budget commitment, pay the rent on the Southern Boulevard station, pay utilities and keep up with maintenance.
“If you have a home, things happen in your house that you have to take care of,” Sagendorf said. “Multiply that in a fire station with however many guys you have going in and out, and it’s not like we have a maintenance crew.”
Sagendorf said he has enjoyed the many years he spent as president but that, with all of the little intricacies that have come with the position, it is always nice to sit back and let somebody else take the reins.
Although Sagendorf has stepped down as president, he said he will still be as active – he still serves as membership chairman, after all—as time will allow.
“I told the guys,” he said, “I’m not going anywhere.”