Former Fire Chief Used Education To Stay One Step Ahead
For someone who openly admits never finishing high school, Frank Stefanelli managed to choose a lifelong career best suited for his personality: Teaching others.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone in Western New York, let alone Chautauqua County, who has put in more time to training and representing firefighters than Stefanelli, a Jamestown native and former chief of the Jamestown Fire Department.
It’s a neighbor, though, that got Stefanelli interested in the fire service in the first place. After a four-year stint in the Navy — a tour of duty that took him out of school at 17 — he found himself driving a truck for a living while he saw his neighbor become a member of the city fire department.
From there Stefanelli took the Civil Service Test and became a member himself in 1960. Though new to the profession at the time Stefanelli said he doesn’t recall the experience being all that difficult.
“It was pretty much what I expected,” he said. “There was a lot to learn but every fire was different.”
As time went on Stefanelli said he came to live by a simple mantra: “First you think of yourself. Second you think of your family. And third you put out the fire.”
During the mid-to-late ’60s the technology used to fight fires evolved. Noticing the need to stay current on new equipment — such as a self contained breathing apparatus that made battling fires indoors more possible — Stefanelli on the advice of others enrolled in Erie Community College.
He became one of the first graduates to receive an associate’s degree in fire science, then a new program at the school. It’s a distinction he said he’s still proud to have.
From there he became a New York state fire instructor assigned to Chautauqua County, a post he held from 1964 to 1972. All the while he remained a full-time firefighter in Jamestown as a first job.
“I’m very fortunate,” Stefanelli said. “This county has been very good to me.”
In 1972, the fire chief position was vacated, opening the door for a new leader of the department. Stefanelli submitted a three-page letter to Mayor Stan Lundine, stating why he should be appointed chief. Much to his own surprise he was given the post.
Stefanelli said his main objective early on in his tenure was to continue the department’s upgrades in equipment — such as vehicles and tools — as well as push additional training. As fire chief he was required to send annual budget to City Council as well as support financial decisions that came from city hall.
“I usually got very little opposition when I submitted a budget,” Stefanelli said. “My goal was to get the very most of the dollars. When I could I would keep the money right here in the city.”
“Of course we couldn’t buy our fire trucks here,” he continued, “but I did my best to do everything here.”
When a fire science course began at Jamestown Community College, it was Stefanelli who pushed for firefighters to attend. In fact, he taught a semester there in between his job as chief as state fire instructor.
Stefanelli stepped down as fire chief in 1980, but continued to provide consulting service. During his time, he said he taught firefighters in all 42 county fire departments.
From 1986-87 he was president of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. In the late 1980s, he was appointed deputy fire administrator for the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control — now under Homeland Security. He was supported by Lundine, who by that point was ending his tenure as lieutenant governor under Mario Cuomo.
Stefanelli’s impact has been appreciated on the local level.
“Chautauqua County has been very fortunate to have Frank Stefanelli as a member of the county fire service and sharing his passion, leadership and knowledge along to our members,” said Julius Leone, county director of emergency services.
“Over his career he has touched and inspired so many firefighter and encouraged them to become the best that they could be,” he added.
Looking at the current state of the fire service, Stefanelli said volunteer fire departments are hurting for new members. When one retires, he said, there isn’t anyone to take their place.
“For an EMS call you sometimes have to call three departments just to get two guys to respond,” he said. “My opinion is that there is going to be paid firefighters at these stations. It’s something I began saying many, many years ago.”
As for the city fire department, he said he feels pretty confident there. “They know what they’re doing,” Stefanelli said. “They do a lot of training and they have a lot of good equipment. I’m not worried about them one bit.”