By Rebecca Hoey
What do years of planning, hard work, sincere dedication, and camaraderie wrapped up in a package filled with history look like? After my first visit there, I have to say it’s the Islip Town Fire & EMS Museum and Education Center.
Sitting across from the Long Island Ducks baseball stadium (Bethpage Ballpark) in Central Islip, the museum started as a dream 28 years ago for a group of firefighters, and became an extended work in progress. Recently celebrating the second anniversary of its opening in 2017, it’s now filled with more than 1,500 pieces of eclectic firefighting memorabilia, and is maintained by an all-volunteer crew, at no cost to tax payers.
When visiting the Islip Town Fire & EMS Museum, my daughter and I received nothing short of a grand tour from historian Tom Rinelli. Rinelli, along with 14 other volunteers (all Town of Islip firefighters – both active and inactive), have spent countless hours at the museum studying and researching every artifact that comes through the door, ensuring Islip’s firefighting history remains intact. Many of the pieces are then impeccably restored to go on display.
Even in the beginning stages of the museum being built, the camaraderie that you expect from firefighters was demonstrated throughout the community. Carpenters Union 290 approached and offered the firefighters their assistance when hearing of the project. Twenty carpenters completed all of the interior sheetrocking within a mindblowing four days over two weekends.
Today the museum continues to depend on its volunteers for survival. “We take individual skills of everyone and get the job done together,” said Rinelli. This is obvious throughout your visit.
Something else that helps this museum stand uniquely is that the displays are rotated often. “We try to keep it fresh,” said Rinelli. “The majority of the museum’s collection is owned by the individual 18 Fire Departments and five Ambulance Corps. of the Town of Islip.” These artifacts are unique to each department. So even if you’ve visited once, you’ll have a new experience the next time you go back.
During the tour, Rinelli’s enthusiasm quickly becomes contagious and you look forward to learning as much as possible. He explained the main mission of all the volunteers: “We are stewards of history.”
It’s a huge and continuous undertaking as there are always donations coming in. For example, people who have lost loved ones who were firefighters who happened to have firefighting memorabilia, tend to donate a lot. One really cool new exhibit that displays firefighter hats from around the world has received such family donations.
Keeping the integrity fluent to coincide with their responsibility as “stewards of history,” nothing is ever wasted. “We never throw anything out,” said Rinelli. What’s not put on display immediately is stored, researched, and preserved for future use. Rinelli continues, “We sometimes donate or share with other museums or the fire department of origin.”
The firetrucks that are on display also change seasonally. “We rotate the trucks every three months,” Rinelli explained. This is another perfect excuse to visit the museum as many times as you’d like.
Through the end of the summer of 2019, visitors will be able to view the 1960 Saltaire Jeep Willys that was in frontline service as a dedicated fire engine for many years. It’s now owned privately and has been fully restored. This past winter the museum showcased a Japanese fire truck owned by a local collector of Japanese culture.
Fundraising of course is a huge deal in helping maintain the museum, and they host a number of exciting events, such as the annual chili cookoff in September. There are also training seminars for firefighters and emergency service workers, fire safety education, pet CPR and first aid, defensive driver education, and historical presentations.
Due to the fact that the museum is volunteer based, Rinelli strongly suggests calling in advance when planning a visit to confirm hours of operation that weekend. Be sure to leave a message when necessary, and unlike many places, someone will actually return your call to help plan your arrangements. Private tours also can be arranged upon request.
During the tour, Rinelli mentioned how tight-knit the firefighter community tends to be, and even stated, “The brotherhood spans across the world.” After one visit I think you’ll find that there’s proof of this running throughout the museum.
While admission is free, donations are always welcomed and greatly appreciated. Be sure to go to the museum’s website at www.isliptownfirefightersmuseum.org for more information or call 631-778-6621 to schedule a visit.
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