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Chief Keough and the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department

December 22, 2010
By CAPERTON TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

If you talk to Brendan Keough, you'll learn very little about him, but a lot about the work of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department. Equally important to him is his work as director/co-owner of the Fortune-Keough Funeral Home in Saranac?Lake. What is the common denominator here? It is one Brendan discovered in his first year of college.

He grew up a healthy, rambunctious child.

"I was a terror," Brendan said.

Article Photos

Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brendan Keough
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

Nevertheless, embraced by family and the Saranac Lake community, he attended his first year of school at St. Bernard's.

"I was a little too much for the nuns," he said.

He continued his schooling at Petrova, then moved on to the high school, from which he graduated in 1983. In his freshman year of college at SUNY Canton, he came to realize that helping others through critical times in their lives was the kind of work he really wanted to do. To meet this goal, he finished college and returned home to join the family business and to marry and start his own family.

He and his wife Julie raised two daughters, who are now both in college, and one son who is in the eighth grade.

Brendan views his funeral director job less as work and more as an opportunity to lend sympathy, understanding and support to those who are experiencing traumatic events.

In 1989, this same desire to reach out and help others led him to join the SLVFD, which both his father Ron and his great-grandfather John were members. Ironically, the Keough Funeral Home used to also provide rescue services by, when needed, converting the hearse to an ambulance. However, in 1955, due to a growing business and time limitations, his grandfather, Eugene Keough, turned over the ambulance to a separate organization, the SLVFD.

In April 2010, after 21 years of fire fighting experience, Brendan was elected chief.

"I am humbled by the opportunity to serve as chief of this great department," he said.

He describes the members of the fire department as "a remarkable group of people. They are there because they really want to help the community."

He goes on to describe the types of services which the fire department provides: "The interesting thing about the fire department is also what makes it so difficult at times, namely the broad band of specialized areas we cover: water rescues, ice rescues, backcountry search and rescues, firefighting which often includes hazardous materials, car accidents, snowmobile accidents, plane crashes, assistance during ice storms and continually training for potential mass casualty events."

The SLVFD, which provides various emergency services to Saranac Lake and the five nearby towns, consists of 60 men and women with usually as many as 30 to 40 responding to working structure fires.

Five paid, full-time drivers allow the fire department to react with maximum speed to an emergency. These drivers work 24-hour shifts during which they live at the firehouse, maintain the equipment, serve as dispatchers and can immediately drive the trucks to crisis locations. This saves precious minutes as volunteers can go directly to the scene rather than first to the firehouse to retrieve equipment.

And there is another important job these men do. They feed and care for Smokey, the fire dog who lives at the firehouse with them. He is the sixth Dalmatian to live there and has the distinction of being featured on "Animal Planet."

As of November 2010, the newly-formed Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad, under the leadership of Third Asst. Chief Vernon James, began operating as an officially independent organization, facilitating the hiring of a full-time paid emergency medical technician James Bankich.

Many members, however, continue to belong to both the fire and the rescue departments. This year dedicated volunteers have responded to 222 fire and 915 emergency medical calls.

Training for all positions is extensive and becoming more so every year as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other federal and state regulatory agencies increase their oversight.

Initial training for either position requires around 87 hours for fire and 120 hours for rescue of specialized education, with on-going local workshops offered every month.

Weekly meetings are dedicated to the business and training of this organization. "For people who volunteer, this is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service, which they provide 365 days a year," he said. "Emergencies don't pick between weekends and holidays."

Sacrificed time is not the only cost to volunteers. Occasionally, some also suffer post-traumatic stress disorder due to the nature of the emergencies and that, in a tight-knit community, volunteers are often personally acquainted with accident victims.

The Dive Rescue and Recovery Team is a subdivision of the fire department. It was established in 1960 by Chester Fobare and is currently under the leadership of Captain Ken McLaughlin. It consists of five certified divers who are responsible for the largest district in the state, nearly 600 square miles. They utilize four boats and their usual diving depth is 60 feet, though some team members have, at times, descended as much as 100 feet.

As Adirondack water temperatures are generally well under 70 degrees year-round, all their dives are classified as "cold-water" ones requiring extra training and precautions.

While confidentiality policies prevent the recounting of specific events, there have been a few significant operations which are already part of the public record. One happened in September 2001 when the SLVFD offered vital assistance in New York City by dispatching an emergency medical rescue team to help at ground zero after the 9/11 attack.

Another incident involved a United Arab Emirates military C-130 Hercules plane which, while on its way to the United Arab Emirates, had an engine propeller detach and blow through the fuselage, wrecking both engines on one side and requiring the crew to jettison its fuel and much of its heavy cargo before making an emergency landing at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, where it skidded off the runway.

The SLVFD, in responding, had to deal with foreign manifestos and cargo contents which necessitated calling the Pentagon to make sure that all international aviation regulations were followed. Such are the unusual types of events for which an emergency team tries to prepare.

To learn more about the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, founded in 1891, visit its new website at

"I am very proud of our dedicated members who contribute so much to the community,"?Brendan said.

It seems like a good time of year to recognize these committed and at times heroic citizens and thank them for their generous and indispensible service.


Based on research and an interview with Brendan Keough Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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