PORT JERVIS, NY – Port Jervis Fire Department’s immediate Past Chief Dominic Cicalese was honored as one of four Grand Marshals in PJFD’s Annual Inspection Day Parade 2022. Cicalese, at 41, will have given 25-years of volunteer firefighting service in the department this year.
Cicalese was born in Jamaica Queens, NY on April 11, 1981. He moved to Port Jervis on his second birthday, the same day his father, late PJFD Past Chief Mike Cicalese, was installed as Port Jervis’ new postmaster. It was his father’s request for that postal transfer, and his parents wish for a better way of life, that led to a future firefighting path for both father and son.
Dominic grew up in Port Jervis, graduated from PJHS in 1999, then Orange County Community College, and is pursuing a legal studies degree from SUNY Berkheimer. He is a career firefighter with Middletown Fire Department, where he has worked for the past ten years. He and his wife Carol have a young daughter, and are expecting a second child in August.
Cicalese is among many multi-generation Port firefighters who grew up visiting firehouses where a parent/parents served. His father, later a chief of the department, was a fireman at Delaware Engine Co. No. 2. This is where Dominic became a junior firefighter when he was 16.
“Families followed families in, and my dad was in this company so it seemed like the way to go,” Cicalese said.
Cicalese views Port’s multiple generations of family firefighters as a big advantage for the department.
“The lineage and heritage of families like the Kowals, Fullers, Moores and others are what is helping to keep it alive,” he said.
As soon as he was of age to move from Junior to firefighter, he qualified as an interior firefighter for PJFD. He and Frank “Petey” W. Fuller, III, also a past chief, had attended multiple schools together and trained diligently to ready at 18.
“As we were growing up, it was a way of life. We had bells in our house. All of the chiefs did. When I had friends over, they would hear the bells,” Cicalese recalled. “The bells went off for chiefs a second before the fire whistles.”
While chief bells may no longer alert him, Cicalese continues to respond to calls for help. For the past ten years he served as a PJFD chief, even though this was not something he had ever aspired to.
“My father’s having been a chief had no bearing on my decision to run. It was a friend who asked me one day, “Why don’t you do this someday?” Cicalese said. “His question made me think. I had the time, age, and energy, so I thought I could help push the department forward and try to make it better. That’s why I ran.”
Cicalese attributes experiences he gained while growing up, and early jobs, as helping prepare him for responsibilities as chief. As postmaster, his dad had instilled in him the importance of properly completing administrative work. In his early jobs, first with Jason Dobbs for ten years and later for Don Parker at Gray-Parker Funeral home, he gained experience in running a business and interacting with the public.
“I gained business experience with Jason, and learned how to be dignified in tough situations while working for Don,” Cicalese said.
His responsibilities as a firefighter brought additional life lessons, including leadership and decision-making experience.
Shortly after becoming captain of his company, and while his father was chief, the historic, sprawling three-story Canal-era Colonial Inn burnt in 2004. Bitter cold and intense flames were among challenging conditions Cicalese remembers firefighters having to deal with in fighting this fire.
“Everything was frozen. It was absolutely brutal,” Cicalese recalled. “The fire started in the basement, and I knew from the start it would be bad.”
Dozens of residents were safely evacuated, and the fire was eventually extinguished. However, the structure’s wooden rubble continued to smolder and re-ignite over several days.
Cicalese also recalls many false alarms, accidents, floods, and additional blazes large and small.
In recently years, while he was chief, two large local fires that occurred brought life-threatening danger to firefighters and difficult decisions for command.
“With Clark Motors (2019) we were out-gunned from the get-go. We even almost lost guys. It was windy, and we were giving it everything we had. We had to pull out, go defensive,” Cicalese recalled of the Kingston Avenue auto business blaze.
After making this decision at command they fire was able to be brought under control. But Cicalese noted that making a decision like that is one of the worst things to have to do as chief.
"You know this means you are making a decision to write a building off. It’s very tough, but sometimes it’s what you have to do,” he said.
A similar decision had to be made in a multi-family structure fire (2021) at 72 East Main Street.
“We threw everything we had on that East Main Street call – our best trained firefighters, ideal water conditions, everything. But sometimes you just lose,” Cicalese said. “We had to make a call to abandon the interior fight and go exterior or risk losing firefighters.”
The old balloon-type structure, built in the 1800s, was found to have a dumb-waiter elevator shaft that ran right through the center of the large ornate house. This open space allowed the fire to rapidly spread from the basement to the upper floors, destroying the interior and structural support. Command, as always, had been in constant touch with firefighters in and around the building. Despite trying everything, the fire got completely out of their control and an evacuation order was issued.
“It was the right decision. We knew firefighters could be hurt or lost if anyone stayed in there. The back of the building collapsed just a short time later. We didn’t lose anybody,” Cicalese said.
Cicalese credits having excellent assistants and other officers working in “lock step” unison with him toward department decisions and goals. While they sometimes differed in approaches, he and Assistant Chiefs Anthony Fuller and Keith Brown were always aware that each decision affected the rest of the department and others. They were objective and in sync in what they brought forward.
Cicalese also credits dedicated longtime firefighters and department officers, such as Tom Vicchiarriello, Jim Rohner, Bill Werner, and others, in making his job easier.
“We are fortunate to have the experience of longtime active firefighters who truly care about the well-being of others, along with the energy of young hard-chargers. It’s an incredible mix that works,” Cicalese said.
As chief, Cicalese was aware that committing as a firefighter essentially meant a lifetime of giving. It was what he had grown up around and seen from an early age. He compared the timeframe of a chief’s 12-year progression to school year progression, first through 12th grade to graduation.
That time commitment alone caused him to ask his now-wife Carol as they began dating if she was sure she wanted to get involved in a firefighter’s way of life which would include a lot of time spent running out to meetings, training, and responses.
“Somebody’s got to pay. While firefighters are out helping to save the world, somebody is home waiting for them,” said Cicalese, who is grateful for his family’s support.
Now having completed his terms of office, Cicalese is glad for the breather this has brought. He does not miss being responsible as duty chief for the many river rescue calls in summer, nor always-interrupted meals at his mom Linda Cicalese’s house, nor automatic alarm calls. He does miss the constant communication that took place between himself and other officers 24 x 7 for so many years.
“It’s very non-ceremonial when your time is complete,” Cicalese explained. “On December 31, you’re that guy who is still responsible as chief, and then on January 1, you’re not. I needed the breather, but it’s hard to move on so fast after holding that spot for so long.”
Cicalese has moved on, and has lots of plans, including spending more time with his growing family. He will continue in his current PJFD role as a Deputy Chief (DC3) and as both a volunteer and career firefighter.
What were his thoughts as a grand marshal of his department’s 2022 annual parade?
“It’s crazy that I was a Grand Marshal of this year’s parade. I grew up in this department and was now leading its parade. My years as chief went by like that, too. I’m humbled and honored!”