Fourteen plaques are displayed on a wall in a spacious room in the Roslyn Highlands firehouse.
Each features a volunteer, commemorating his 50th year with the department. Last Sunday, Barney Murtagh joined their ranks.
People of all ages clad in the Roslyn Highlands navy jacket and matching cap gathered to celebrate the company’s past president in the firehouse Monday evening.
“You’ve done so much for so many people,” Town of North Hempstead Clerk Wayne Wink Jr., one of a handful of local officials in attendance, told the honoree. “You’ve made my family safer.”
Murtagh spearheaded the effort to get a financial reward program for the company’s volunteers called the Length of Service Awards Program. He then oversaw it for almost 20 years.
Serving in a fire department for 50 years taught him everything he needed to know about togetherness, Murtagh said.
“I learned one hell of a lot about life being with this many men and all of their problems and ills,” he said. “It’s helped me a lot in life.”
Volunteer fire departments are the “last great fraternal organization,” his nephew Michael Murtagh, the department’s recording secretary, said.
Perhaps that’s why some people stick with it for 50 years, he said.
“The reason we’re still around is because of that lasting legacy – passing these things on from father to son, uncle to nephew, neighbor to neighbor,” Michael Murtagh said.
But firefighting is also often commonly treated as an extension of military service, Barney Murtagh said – the thing to move on to when returning home.
That’s how he got involved.
He was a member of the U.S. Navy for almost for four years. He joined Roslyn Highlands, his local fire station, in 1969 after returning from service in Vietnam a few months prior.
He was 21 years old.
“I still needed, I realized, some commitment,” Barney Murtagh said. “Some focus.”
It would be years before women and people of color began joining the department’s ranks, he said, but when the department began to diversify a couple decades ago it was nothing but an asset.
The length of service program encouraged members to stay when many had been moving out of the area because of the cost of living, Murtagh said.
“That is a huge thing because it means that these guys, for the years they put in, have something in retirement to thank them for those efforts,” Michael Murtagh said. “LOSAP would not have happened if it was not for my uncle.”
Barney Murtagh rose within the ranks of Roslyn Highlands, eventually becoming president in 1987. He kept the role until 1989 and then briefly returned to it again in 1991.
He also separately served the Roslyn Water District for 30 years, where he was a treatment plant operator and the water service supervisor, he said.
Now Barney Murtagh is the “pre-eminent elder statesman” in the Fire Department, his nephew said.
For the past 26 years he has remained the company’s most recent former president, the go-to for stepping up if needed, Michael Murtagh said.
Barney Murtagh is “the authority” on procedure, retaining insight into the station’s history that many young members never witnessed, he said.
“There are younger guys sitting in this room who are looking up there probably thinking to themselves, ‘I want to be that guy 50 years from now,’” Michael Murtagh said. “‘I want to be able to look back on my life and say, just like Barney tonight, that I’ve been able to make that kind of contribution.’”