Back in the late 1970s, Steven M. Dyl, the chief of the Kearny Fire Department, was doing something very few of his classmates could claim. He and three other classmates were having regular meetings with the late- Mayor Henry Hill.
Their desire was clear — they wanted an emergency rescue squad in town.
And they got it. More than 40 years later, it still exists.
Years after the meetings with Mayor Hill, Dyl passed the test for, and was hired by, the Kearny Fire Department in 1985. Now, 35 years later, having spent the last 13 as chief, Dyl will retire effective July 1, 2020.
Recently, Dyl spoke with The Observer and reminisced about his career.
He says it was a “tough decision” to call it a career, though he’d been thinking of it for some time.
Looking back at his tenure as chief — a baker’s dozen years — he says he is most proud of how he and the department handled the economic downturn in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
“We were down to 68 members at one point,” Dyl said of the department that now boasts 102 members. “There was a lot of overtime — it was just a really tough time. But we worked with the Fire Committee (on the Town Council). We found grants. We worked with the union. Eventually, we were able to do what was best for everybody. We hired as we needed. The SAFER grant was important.”
Being able to get on with the Fire Committee was natural, given that it was chaired by Dyl’s former Board of Education partner and running mate and current Councilwoman Eileen Eckel. The chief says Eckel and Councilmembers Susan McCurrie and Albino Cardoso always took the time to listen intently and to learn about how firefighting works.
Because of that, when it came time to ask for new firefighters, the latest in equipment and other things, they got why it was all needed — and were always, thus, cooperative.
“Eileen even went into a burning building,” Dyl said of a training exercise some years back where the councilwoman was a willing participant. “But in all, they understood that my experience meant something. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
It wasn’t always easy
In 35 years of firefighting, there was bound to be some challenges along the way. Dyl recalls a blaze when he was a line firefighter. He and his team were ordered to enter a burning building with the sole duty of finding a person who was reportedly trapped, completely unable to get herself out from the second floor.
When he got to the door to enter, the fire and smoke was just too much. His team couldn’t get in.
So they tried to get to her with a ladder.
But by the time the ladder was ready to go, the incident commander said it was too late.
They couldn’t get to the person, who ultimately died.
“I often wonder if I could have done something differently,” Dyl said. “Something like that sticks with you, you know?
Then there was a South Kearny blaze, while he was chief, where a collapse caused two Kearny firefighters to be injured.
“I was down the shore when I got the word,” Dyl said. “That was one of the longest drives ever. Fortunately, the injuries weren’t life-threatening. But that time driving back to Kearny …”
He did make a difference
Dyl says his success as one of only 10 men who can say they were Chief of the Kearny Fire Department stems from several reasons. Over his tenure, he developed modern plans, policies, procedures, met training goals, had the best-available equipment and more.
Having all of this in place made it easier for all.
He also says having the best high-ranking officers surrounding him also made his work that much easier.
“You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with,” Dyl said. And Dyl certainly did surround himself with the best, especially in the ranks of deputy chief — current and former.
Sept. 11, 2001
We asked the retiring chief about his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, a day that any firefighter on the job that day likely recalls with great ease. Dyl, a captain at the time, was off-duty that Tuesday morning and had just dropped his son off at Franklin School, the same son who is now, himself, a Kearny firefighter.
“I saw those buildings go up as a kid from Davis Avenue,” Dyl recalled. “And I saw them come down from there. It sticks with me to this day.”
The next day, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001, Kearny sent an engine to the Lincoln Tunnel to be on stand-by in case they were needed, but Dyl, though he wanted to be there, wasn’t. On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, Dyl was part of a crew that was sent to what was then known as Ground Zero, or, “the pile.”
“There was such a feeling of helplessness leading to it,” Dyl said. “The day after, I had to stay behind because the town still needed protection. But I wanted to be there. It was frustrating because a lot of departments that came from a lot further away than Kearny were getting to Manhattan to help.
“But then to see those Towers up close — 110 stories high— turned into four or five stories … I kept thinking, ‘Where did the buildings go?’ There was all the metal, but everything else vaporized. There were no windows, no telephones, no photocopiers. Windows were blown out of skyscrapers blocks away.
“It was a lot to take in. Seeing the look on the faces of New York City firefighters — these looks of devastation and them knowing they lost a lot of friends.”
That was the only day, perhaps fortunately, that Dyl would be at Ground Zero. In the days that followed, though there were plenty of outside departments from across North America willing to assist, most of the rescue work — which quickly turned into recovery work — was performed by the FDNY.
Leaving the department in better shape
Dyl became chief in the summer of 2007, following what had been the unexpected retirement of his predecessor, Joseph Lapsanski. In all, he’s proud to say he leaves the department in “better shape than when I inherited it.”
This all includes the implementation of a Marine Unit, more stringent preparation — including confined-space training and rebuilding a department decimated by the economy.
“Not bad for a guy who was in high school, meeting with the mayor,” Dyl said, modestly. “I’ve worked with a great bunch of guys in my career — I’d say a little over 200 firefighters in total. This is a great fire department and it’s been an honor to serve in it.”
Dyl was unable to say who his successor would be. However, in one of the worst-kept secrets in recent memory, several sources have indicated that Mayor Alberto G. Santos is expected to name current Deputy Chief Joseph Mastandrea the new chief, effective July 1, sometime in the next few days.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.