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From left, Adams Fire Co. firefighters Robin Zastrow and Dave Mesler and Fire Co. President Jim Mihalko mark the company's 100th anniversary in front of their company truck during a day of awards, memories and milestones at the event Saturday, April 20.
From left, Adams Fire Co. firefighters Robin Zastrow and Dave Mesler and Fire Co. President Jim Mihalko mark the company's 100th anniversary in front of their company truck during a day of awards, memories and milestones at the event Saturday, April 20.

Courage and tradition: Through the eyes of the firefighters

Fri, May 10th 2024 11:00 am

By Karen Carr Keefe

Senior Contributing Writer

The Tribune/Sentinel had the opportunity to talk with several longtime firefighters and three women firefighters who are taking leadership roles in the Adams Fire Co. of Wheatfield. The occasion was the fire company’s 100th anniversary installation dinner on April 20.

We are pleased to share their stories as the fire company celebrates a century of service to the community.


Bob Wiegand, left, and Robert Leaderstorf have served the Adams Fire Co. for a combined 110 years, in a variety of roles over the years. Both are impressed with the company’s strides in technology and training.


Bob Leaderstorf and Bob Wiegand

Bob Leaderstorf is a 50-year member and, at age 90, is the second-oldest in the fire company. He has served as president, a member of the board of directors, treasurer, and worked on other previous company fundraising functions such as bingo and chowder sales. He is what’s called an exempt member, and is classified as a life member, as well.

“The equipment, the training – everything is different, Leaderstorf said. “It’s more involved, more complex. I don’t think I could do that anymore.”

“Being a member of the company for all these years, I had a lot of different roles,” he said. “It’s very important to be a volunteer.”

Bob Wiegand is a 60-year member of the company. Now an exempt member, he served as assistant chief, second assistant chief, a member of the board of directors, training officer, safety officer, treasurer and “everyday fireman.”

He has followed his family’s tradition of being a volunteer firefighter, which Wiegand regards as a higher calling. He said for him, and a lot of the firefighters, they join because it’s part of their heritage.

“It’s not a question whether you’re going to join or not – you join, that’s it,” Wiegand said. “People have said to me, ‘How could you do this all the time?’ Well, when you pull people out of a house that’s burning, save kids, animals, you don’t worry so much about the property because that can be replaced. But when you save human beings, it’s gratifying.”

Wiegand spoke of the courage it takes to go into a building full of smoke when you can’t see what’s right in front of you, and you’re searching for somebody.

“The ceiling can come down, the walls can come down. You have no idea what’s going to happen,” he said.

“My grandfather (John Wiegand) was one of the founding members,” Wiegand said. The Sawyer Creek Hotel on Niagara Falls Boulevard and Nash Road was his family home and his business.

“At the time, 1924, they needed a fire department,” he said. “Mr. (William) Adams – hence Adams Fire Co. – he donated some property. And there were some of the other farmers there. They all formed Adams Fire Co., and the firehall sat next to the bar until 1950, and then they moved to the present location on Nash Road. Originally, the fire calls came into the bar. They blew the siren from the bar – every night at 6 o’clock.

“When I was a little kid, that was a big deal – I could pull the siren.”

Wiegand’s dad, Joseph, was in the fire company before him. He was the chief, president, and held just about every official post with the company, his son said. His mother, Dorothy, was involved in the auxiliary. Both of Wiegand’s parents also were involved with the Western New York and state fire association. Four of his uncles were firefighters, as well.

He joined the department at 18, along with his close childhood friend, Tom Sell, who recently passed away.

“From when I joined in 1964, to what it is now – it’s night and day,” Wiegand said. “A lot of it’s training, equipment, response times, the amount of the calls. We’ve had years we had 800 calls.” Now pagers and other new equipment make communications so much better in the company’s response to calls, he noted.

The population of Wheatfield has grown, making additional work for the company to keep up with the town’s growth.

“It’s difficult getting help,” Wiegand said.

He explained he can relate from his earlier years of serving with the company: “There are days I’ve gone to a fire – just me,” starting the firefighting alone before anyone else got there.

“Back then, volunteer fire departments were the nucleus of the community. Everything revolved around them. The people all belonged to it, the functions were there – the field days, the chowders. That doesn’t happen now. People do not have time.”

Wiegand said national data on recruitment shows “You can have them from 18 to 25. You’re not going to see them again from 25 to 45, when they’re raising their families. So, you either get them now or you get them later.”

Adams Fire Co. has a Junior Firefighter program for those age 12-18. “We’ve graduated quite a few out of that” who have become members, Wiegand noted. To apply for membership in the program, go to https://www.adamsfireco.com/join/junior-firemen/.


Adams Fire Co. President Jim Mihalko, a 48-year member; and Second Assistant Chief Robert Pino, a 50-year member, discuss fire company changes, challenges and achievements the company has experienced.


Jim Mihalko and Bob Pino

Jim Mihalko is in his fourth year as president of Adams Fire Co. and is in his 48th year as a member. He was chief in 1985 and 1987 and served on the board of directors for more than a decade.

“My dad was in the company before me. My mom will be here tonight. She’s in the Auxiliary. She’s 90. It’s a family affair – you get addicted,” Mihalko said.

“I don’t think some of the young people take it as seriously as we do. It’s kind of a family thing. Back even when I was growing up, there weren’t as many activities as there are now. They’ve got karate, they’ve got softball, they’ve got soccer and all those.”

Mihalko and Bob Pino both have three generations of firefighters in their families – they, their parents and their adult children make the tradition that a number of the Adams Fire Co. leadership can claim. There are multiple two-generation members, as well.

“It’s good to see,” Mihalko said. “It’s a constant thing – retention, recruiting people. A few years ago, we had 60 members; we’re about 42 now. The pandemic hurt us.”

Mihalko is retired now. He worked for the state Health Department Emergency Medical Services for more than 30 years. In college, he studied for a career as a respiratory therapist.

Pino is a 50-year member of the fire company and served as fire chief for 16 years – the longest tenure in the company’s history. He gave credit to Mihalko as the person who initiated the company’s EMS training program.

 “He was our EMS guy, starting out in the ’70s. I was fire chief at the time, and he’s the one that kind of got us kick-started and pointed in the right direction,” Pino said.

“I think we provide a really good service today. Over the years, we morphed into basic service, advance service. We had an ambulance for a while, then we discontinued the ambulance service and we went with a commercial service. The idea was to provide the best service to the people we serve.”

Mihalko and Pino said the company has evolved to meet the changes in the Town of Wheatfield.

“Our community has really evolved from a very rural community to – now we’re the new Amherst,” Mihalko said. “Because people can live in our district vs. the Ellicott Creek, and their taxes are a third of their taxes, but you have the same amenities – good schools, you got good sewer, water electric, good housing. So, we’ve seen a lot of people move into our fire district, because our fire district still has a lot of open land for people to build and continue to build. There’s a proposed new subdivision of 300 new homes coming in – that’s another 300 customers to serve.”

Pino pointed out that the district was the recipient of 300 to 400 senior apartments – populated by older residents who require more services than most people.

“We’re just there to provide for them – whatever their needs are,” he said.

There are about 75 patio homes in the Adams fire district, as well as Northgate Manor, a 200-bed nursing home. The company also covers more than 100 units of assisted living and about 75 units of memory care.

He said that, around 2006, Adams Fire Station 2 was built “to better serve that section of our area where a lot of that building was going on. And it’s worked out real well for us with our membership because it was kind of hard-to-get people to join if they’re 5 or 6 miles away from the firehall.”

There was a dual benefit, Pino said. “Not only did we increase our membership, but we spread out our resources so that we can better reach the people that we need to get to.”


Adams Fire Co. Vice President Amy Zastrow, Capt. Stephanie Sweeney and EMS Capt. Amy Orlowski are part of the group of women firefighters who have diversified and strengthened Adams Fire Co. through their dedication to helping the community.


Amy Zastrow, Stephanie Sweeney and Amy Orlowski

Amy Zastrow is vice president of Adams Fire Co. and previously served as fire company secretary. She is a lifetime member of the company, having served 32 years. She said that, when she joined, there were only three other women in the company.

She works for SUNY Brockport as a secretary.

Zastrow has family in the company – her husband, Ross, and her brother are members, as well as family member Robin Zastrow. But she also has a different definition of family for her fellow firefighters.

“It’s a family – I have to say, we are a big family,” Zastrow said. “My great uncle was a founding member of Bergholz Fire Co., and now my nephew belongs to that. And my dad had done a short stint at that fire company also. So, it must be in our blood.”

She said being a part of the fire company means a lot to her: “I love it. I have a lot of pride for the Town of Wheatfield. It’s my home; it’s where I grew up. Even though I don’t live there now, I still come back. I just did 12 years of volunteering for Tri-Community (Ambulance Service), which is in the Town of Wheatfield.” She said her husband “breathes and lives this stuff. He worked for the state EMS Bureau, overseeing ambulance services for 20 years.”

 “It’s such a good feeling to help somebody, and I think that’s why we do it,” Zastrow said. I get a joy out of it.”

She added, “It’s so hard when it’s somebody that you know – a family member. It happened the night my father passed away. When it’s that, it’s a totally different scenario.”

Zastrow said that, outside the fire company, people don’t always understand the pull toward volunteering.

“I wish more people would understand or see it,” she said. “You try to bring the public in, like with open houses and the Santa Claus drive that we do. But I don’t think they really see we are a family. … We back each other up, no matter what.”

Adams Fire Co. Capt. Stephanie Sweeney also is following family tradition as a firefighter.

“I’m actually a third-generation firefighter. My father was a chief in Lancaster Fire Department and his father, my grandfather was a firefighter in Depew,” Sweeney said.

 My husband and I bought a house in Wheatfield and I knew I wanted to help. I wanted to do something and be a part of something bigger,” she said.

“So I wanted to make sure I was settled, because when I join I wanted it to be  like, ‘This is where I’m going to stay.’ And so once I had my son and things kind of calmed down a little bit – because you know how it is with little ones – I ’m ‘All right. Now’s the right time,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney was sworn in in 2019. Her day job is working as a paralegal in an office.

As to what being a firefighter means to her, Sweeney said, “It means everything. I love being the person to run in when it might be instinct of everyone else to run away. We’re here to help. I love when people see us coming, like, ‘Help is here.’ ”

EMS Capt. Amy Orlowski also has had family in the company. Two of her cousins belonged to Adams Fire Co., and both are now North Tonawanda firefighters.

“My mother passed away when I was 12 years old, and Adams came to the house,” she said. “I didn’t obviously think about it then.”

But she said that, years later, she did. One of her cousins got her a job where he worked, at the American Medical Response (AMR) ambulance service in Buffalo. That job was a pathway for Orlowski to focus on the field of emergency medical service, then bring her skills to volunteer work at the fire company.

“I started my career there,” she said. “I got my foot in the door with EMS. I was the VST – the vehicle service technician – so I would stock the ambulances, get the crews ready for their shift.”

She was around paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) all the time during 12-hour shifts.

Orlowski said she trained and was certified as an EMT in February of 2020. After working at AMR for several years, she joined Adams Fire Co. in 2018.

Orlowski has been an EMT captain at Adams for about three years.

“Every month, I’ll put on an EMS drill,” she said.

Orlowski checks the EMS bags to make sure the medications are up-to-date and that all the needed supplies are there so the crew is ready to go “when those tones drop.”

In her off-hours from the fire company, she works with a car auction, ADESA, in Akron.

The training and her life experiences prepared and motivated her to help others through volunteer service with the fire company.

“So, part of them coming to help me in my time of need when my mother passed and helping my father out – just seeing that, as I was growing up and then just wanting to help people,” in their time of need – that was Orlowski’s context for joining Adams. “They were there for me, so I wanted to pay it back.”


See also >> Adams Fire Co. marks 100 years

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