By Ted Waddell
BETHEL August 5, 2005 It all started with a sandwich.
About five years ago, Richard "Dick" Martinkovic was sitting down with the late NYS Assemblyman Jake Gunther over a BLT at an eatery in White Sulphur Springs.
"So what's on your mind?" Martinkovic recalled Gunther asking him between bites.
"I need some money, like about $100,000," the future county fire commissioner replied, adding the Assemblyman's response was, "Who do you think I am, Senator Bonacic?"
About a month later, the State Assembly had coughed up the requested amount, which was soon followed by more than $1 million from Senator Bonacic and over $900,000 from the County Legislature to pay for a $2.1 million state-of-the-art fire training facility.
On Wednesday morning, a lot of hard work by the fire training facility committee came to fruition during a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the multi-purpose live-fire/smoke training facility designed to meet stringent OSHA and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) training standards for volunteer firefighters.
Proving once again that he is a politician adept at keeping his feet on rocky ground, Senator Bonacic told the crowd walking across the uneven construction site, "This is the first training exercise.
"This was the only county in my district without a fire training center," said Bonacic. "It's been a cooperative partnership, and in 47 months it will be a reality. . . . This is a good day, and when it's built it will be a great day."
NYS Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther praised the dedication of the county's volunteer firefighters, noting she and Senator Bonacic are pushing for legislation that will permit volunteer firefighters to claim a 10 percent property tax reduction for putting their lives at risk in service to the local community.
"This is a very important, high-tech facility," she said.
Along with Chris Cunningham, chair of the Sullivan County Legislature, the following legislators attended the groundbreaking ceremony: Kathy LaBuda, Jodi Goodman, Rodney Gaebel, Sam Wohl and Leni Binder.
Harold Kronenberg served as head of the county's firematics service for 25 years.
"We've talked about this for a great many years, and it's something that's very much needed," said the former fire coordinator. "The training will make our firefighters better prepared when they go out into the field."
Paul Hemmer is co-chair of the fire training facility committee and, along with co-chairman Jim Cavello of the Rock Hill VFD, fought long and hard to get a state-of-the-art firematics training facility in the county.
In addition, Hemmer is a deputy fire coordinator, chair of the Sullivan County Fire Advisory Board and past chief of Protection Hose Company #1 of Jeffersonville.
"It's a great step up in our training capability," said the 25-year veteran of volunteer fire service.
In the wake of several groundbreaking ceremonies the DPW provided four shovels Hemmer said, "It's an emotional high seeing this happen. . . . I'm elated."
Once completed, the Sullivan County Fire Training Center will feature two live-burn rooms equipped with automatic safety monitors to protect firefighters-in-training if the scenario gets too hot or smoky, ventilation chop-out hatches in the second-story residential section, a third-floor tower chop-out, FAST team (Firefighter Assist & Search Team a specialized team that stands by to rescue firefighters in trouble during interior structure fire operations), chop-out hatches to simulate a through-the-floor rescue of a downed firefighter, tactical training for police and a six-bay drive-through garage for the county's WMD equipment (a couple of decontamination trailers, a truck and personal protective gear).
"We want to be the best that we can be, and this facility will allow us to be the best," said Martinkovic.
"This is the opening salvo," he added, noting the contract calls for the project to be completed in 270 days
And it will be used. There are 1,150 volunteer firefighters in the county (plus four paid drivers in Monticello) and about 200 volunteer EMS personnel, said Martinkovic.
Eighty-six-year-old Mary Margaret King has lived in nearby Kauneonga Lake for 16 years since moving to the area from Queens.
Her view of the new fire training center?
"It means progress, watching it grow," she said. "They need the training, and now the new firefighters won't be going in naked or standing around."