West Hamilton Beach Chief celebrates 30 years


| nbrown@queenscourier.com |

When Jonah Cohen first joined the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Firefighters (WHBVF), he wasn’t sure how long it would last.
“I didn’t realize how long I’d be staying, and I certainly never expected to be chief,” he said.
But Cohen, the 55-year-old Department Chief, celebrated his 30th anniversary with the WHBVF on Thursday, October 4, and says he’s not done yet.
“Depending on health, I think I have another 10 years in me,” said a relaxed Cohen from his desk at the firehouse, located at 102-33 Davenport Court in Hamilton Beach.
Cohen began volunteering at local firehouses as a student at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks. When he graduated, he wasn’t quite ready for the experience to end, so he moved back to Brooklyn, his hometown, and joined WHBVF.
“Then, over time, I just realized there was a continuous need to be here,” he said.
Cohen spends between 30 and 40 hours at the firehouse each week, nearly as long as he spends at his job in the medical records department at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, where he has worked for 25 years.
“If I had a wife and kids, I’d probably be divorced,” quipped Cohen, a bachelor who admits he doesn’t spend much time at home.
He risks life and limb — for no pay — and says his volunteerism is what defines his community identity.
“This has been my way of getting to know people,” said Cohen. “I was never really one to go out to bars…through this work, you get to know different aspects of people. You have to listen to see where they’re coming from. It’s not always straightforward.”
As familiar as Cohen has become with his community, it has come to know him just as well.
“I cannot find a person that has a bad word to say about him,” said Councilmember Joe Addabbo. “Everybody likes this guy. In this society, nowadays, that’s rare.”
“Jonah’s made such an impact on the community — you have no clue,” said District 27 Democratic Leader Frank Gulluscio. “Every Christmas, he dresses up like Santa and they drive the truck from house to house.”
The 25 volunteers who work alongside Cohen feel his impact on a daily basis.
“He’s a pillar of devotion,” said Deputy Chief Bruce Stock, a six-year member of the force.
Stock, who knew nothing about firefighting before a blaze that took the life of a neighbor compelled him to join, said Cohen was the one who taught him the ropes.
“He’s the stone this place is built on,” Stock said.
“Dedication-wise, nobody can match his effort,” said Joe Aldana, a department volunteer and Ozone Park native whose father was chief before Cohen took over.
Daniel Amorim called volunteering under Cohen one of the “best experiences of my life. He has a heart in this place, no matter what.”
Due in part, he said, to Cohen’s mentoring, Amorim has placed himself on the New York Fire Department’s waitlist, and hopes to join the force by January. Amorim would not be the first WHBVF member to reach the FDNY, however.
“Jonah has directed a lot of guys that are now in the FDNY,” said WHBVF Commissioner Wayne Nelson.
Cohen is quick to point out that volunteers undergo much of the same training as FDNY firefighters. “We’re not non-professional,” said Cohen. “We’re volunteers. There’s a difference. A lot of people confuse that. We’re all professional.”
WHBVF began in 1928, and has been involved in many large-scale disasters in New York City, including 9\11, where its members drove medical personnel and wounded citizens between Ground Zero and local hospitals. Over the years, the department has gained notoriety throughout the community, giving fire safety presentations at P.S. 207. Still, Cohen stressed, a small, volunteer firehouse is always in need of financial support from its community.
“Money always needs to keep coming in,” he said. “There’s always a new piece of equipment to buy, or some new nut to crack.”
Though they pop up on occasion, said Cohen, concerns like that are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, he said, his days are filled with pride, and the knowledge that he is impacting his community.
“I want to help people,” he said. “Knowing that people appreciate what you do is a great feeling.”