Claude Potts is clearly a man committed to the village of Tivoli who continues helping those in need to this day. This year marks his incredible 70th year of service in Company 5 of the Tivoli Volunteer Fire Department.
“It’s actually 73 years, but I couldn’t sign the papers until I was 18,” Potts said with a chuckle.
At the age of 88, Potts still regularly responds to emergency calls.
Marc Hildenbrand, the current fire chief, said, “It’s great to have him with us on calls as he has a lot of experience. Knowledge is power … especially in life or death situations.”
To commemorate his decades of service, the Tivoli Fire Department at its annual dinner June 28 dedicated its 1957 Maxim Pumper fire truck, which is still in service, to him. Potts is the sole surviving member of the village committee that purchased the fire truck. Along with the dedication, Potts received accolades from Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, Dutchess Fire Control, and the N.Y. Fire Association, among others.
In an interview with The Observer, Potts recalled that in his early days in the fire department, he would often bolt out of his high school classes to respond to local emergencies.
The technology was primitive back then, he said. There were no radios, only a siren on someone’s property in the town, and an early fire engine known as the 1925 Maxim with a 35-gallon water tank that was activated by adding acid to soda bicarbonate to create carbon dioxide gas, which would then shoot out of a nozzle pointed at the fire.
The truck was a huge improvement, he noted, over the original combination of three different teams that would orchestrate hook and ladder, hose company, and a steam powered pump vehicle.
Before the advent of stringent regulation and modern equipment, Potts said the firefighters were a few good men with little training who felt a sense of civic duty to help those in need and protect their community. “We knew everyone in the town by name, and we responded to calls as if our own family members were in danger,” he explained.
Asked about the highlights of his many years of service, Potts recalled that, while the job can be exciting, the real challenge was witnessing tragedies that affected the community.
One of his earliest experiences, he recalled, was with a house fire where he was a first responder and knew the family. He grabbed the roof ladder off the 1925 Maxim fire truck at the scene and climbed up to a window to see two kids sitting on the bed.
“Help us, Mr. Potts, help us,” he recalled them calling out. As he moved to help the children, he saw the floor had been burned away between the bed and the window. By the time he got down to grab a second ladder, he heard a loud crash and screams as the rest of the floor gave way. The children were lost.
“We made a lot of calls that saved many people, but this small town has had more than its fair share of sorrow,” he said.
The reality of a firefighter’s life in dealing with the stark side of community tragedies showed in Potts eyes as he sorted through the memories — and clearly weighed on his heart.
Many such tragedies have lead to more stringent fire codes for buildings as well as better technology for more effective rescues. Potts has watched these changes take place over the years and noted that, as a result, there are fewer fires these days and the majority of emergency-response events are now car crashes.
Potts, who has two daughters, still lives on the Claude Potts farm on Route 9G, which has been in the family for generations and is still in operation. He has always contributed his produce, hay, and time to support fundraisers and food drives for the village.
And what keeps him answering the call?
That’s pretty simple, he said: “I always enjoyed the fire service, and you only get out of fire service what you put into it — and I put in a lot. I did it for the community because it was my community. I still enjoy it to this day.”