Father-Son Duo Sets Precedent in the Fire Department
In volunteer fire departments in small towns everywhere, generations of families are not difficult to find on the rolls, past and present. Sons follow fathers into the same fire company, learning the ropes and working on hose lines together. More unusual is a son becoming a chief while his old man is still an active member, and rarer still, particularly here on the South Fork, is finding such a duo of African-American descent.
In April of last year, Jamalia Hayes became the first black chief in the East Hampton Fire Department when he was elected to the position of second assistant chief. His father, Dudley Hayes, who joined the department in 2002, three years before his son, could not be prouder to serve under him.
The Hayes family has strong roots in East Hampton Town. The elder Mr. Hayes said his ancestors were among the first black families to live in the area, on Promised Land in Amagansett. He grew up here and has always had a deep appreciation for East Hampton, but as he got older, he said, he felt something was missing in his life. He wanted to give back to the community.
A co-worker at Riverhead Building Supply finally convinced him. He then remembered Ken Brown, a former police officer he has known since he was a child attending Boy Scout meetings in the old firehouse on Newtown Lane, telling him, “ ‘You’re going to be surprised how many people you know in there.’ He was telling the truth.”
He may have known everyone, but he was only the department’s second black firefighter, Ernie Vorpahl, the first, having joined in 1998.
At 46 — older than most firefighters when they start out — Dudley Hayes joined Company 3 as an exterior firefighter, responsible for pumping water during fires. His fellow volunteers embraced him, taking him into blazes to get a feel for them, although, he said, he understood quickly that interior firefighting was not for him. He is quiet, does not like much attention, and has a steady hand, perfect for the meticulous work of running the truck.
His son watched as his father got more involved, quickly becoming a lieutenant and then a captain. Jamalia Hayes joined Company 3 in 2005.
His father graduated from East Hampton High School in the class of 1976 with Ken Wessberg, the head chief, who serves ahead of Chief Hayes with Gerry Turza, the first assistant chief.
“Dudley and I go back to kindergarten,” said Chief Wessberg, a 40-year member. He was glad when his friend finally joined the department, he said, and saw that he worked hard to train and become a good firefighter.
“I always thought Dudley would be the first black chief,” he said. “He could have been,” he added. Chief Wessberg said he knows his friend can be hard on himself. “As big as he is, he gets a little shy.”
Dudley Hayes, now 59, said he had a feeling he was being groomed to become a chief, but he preferred being “a black hat,” as opposed to a white hat, as chiefs are known. The chiefs and officers answer the majority of the calls, mostly automatic fire alarms. When he was an officer, he would sleep with his socks on so he could get out of the house faster in the middle of the night.
His son is better suited to the position of chief, more outgoing. “He’s got his mother’s genes,” Chief Wessberg said with a laugh.
Chief Wessberg said Jamalia Hayes becoming the first black chief in the department’s history was one of his proudest moments, and he is sure the 36-year-old will rise through the ranks to the head chief position. “He’s going to be a young great chief.”
It must not be easy, Chief Wessberg said, to join a fraternal organization and see that “every picture on the wall from 1899 on is white.” But, like his father before him, Chief Hayes has not skipped a beat.
Richard Osterberg Jr., who was chief until April 2016, called him “one of the most humble and hard-working men I know. His smile is just as contagious as his father’s laugh is.”
His disposition helps keep morale up. While other volunteer organizations struggle to retain and recruit new members, “We’re fortunate that we still have applications coming in,” Chief Wessberg said. Some companies are full. Having an influx of minority members over the last decade, including Latinos and Asians, has been a welcome change, he said.
“I’m proud,” the elder Mr. Hayes said of his son’s new position. “My whole family is proud.”
“I feel it’s an honor,” his son said, adding that he has never felt race was an issue in the department. He just wants to do a good job and serve the community well, he said.
Being a chief is no easy task, of course. The department answers about 1,000 calls a year. It involves a lot of time away from his family, which includes a 15-year-old son, Jordon, and a 2-year-old daughter, Jay'La. This on top of working full time for Mike Forst Construction.
“Jamalia was raised with good values, and it shows in his work,” Chief Turza said.
Asked if it was difficult taking orders from his son, Mr. Hayes said, “To tell you the truth, he doesn’t give me any,” which elicited a laugh from both father and son. They have a running joke that if the chief ever wants to suspend his father for stepping out of line, he would be happy to take the 30 days.
But in seriousness, Chief Hayes said his father knows what he is doing and does not need instruction. “We’re just here to put out the fire at the end of the day.”
The elder Mr. Hayes said all three of his sons go out of their way to make sure he does less the older he gets, whether around the house or on his side job.
“It’s how we were brought up,” Chief Hayes explained. His father and his mother, Gail Hayes, “brought us up well.”
And that, his father said, is what makes him proudest of all.