OSWEGO — Justin Norfleet wanted to be a mechanical engineer until he didn’t. And so the Cornell graduate looked around at other options, studied to be a paramedic and realized he wanted to work at something he’d volunteered for in Ithaca and nearby Dryden: firefighting.
So, he returned home, to Oswego, at age 27, and in August 1998 landed a job with the fire department here.
“I figured if I liked it enough, and I was going to get paid for it, then, sure, why not?” Norfleet said recently. “So, I gave it a try, and here I am 23 years later.”
When I asked him how long before he retired, his response was “What time is it?”
I laughed, but he wasn’t kidding. That night, Friday evening, Feb. 26, just hours away, at 7 p.m. Justin Norfleet’s career as the department’s deputy fire chief for emergency management would be over.
Why retire now?, I asked.
“I’m eligible to retire,” he said, “and I’ve accomplished, I think, what I wanted to accomplish here. And it’s time to let some of the younger folks move up. And even though I’m a deputy chief, which in a lot of places makes you a desk jockey, because of the way our job works, everybody still has to be able to do every position, and crawling around smoke-filled buildings and such is more of a young man’s game. Plus, there are other places and challenges where I can bring my skills to bear. I hope to do that.
“The things I’ve done in the past, two or three years with emergency management,” he continued, “have really opened different avenues for things I could do more of outside the fire department than I can right here. The emergency management things have been new to our fire department. When Chief Griffin came, he was also appointed the emergency manager for the city, and that was the same time we became eligible for the federal disaster aid for the lakeshore flooding, and as such, we became the lead agency for the city to get the recovery dollars from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and that became one of my primary work tasks. So, heading up the recovery effort and the rebuilding of Breitbeck Park and the marinas and the West Linear Park, trying to get that $10 million for the city. The recovery from disaster is part of the emergency management cycle, so we took the lead on that. And we worked hand-in-hand with Economic Development and the city engineer and such. The interface to the federal government, the state, and the Department of Homeland Security was our part in securing the funds.”
He said “it’s very closely related” to what he hopes to work on in the future, and at 49, Norfleet says he has “enough time for a whole second career.”
He’s been working on a master’s degree in public administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, “doing it part-time for a few semesters, so, I plan to finish up in the summer,” he said.
“So we’re going to see what that brings. I could go the federal government route, I could go the private sector route, I could go the not-for-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) route,” he said. But he has “no plans for the immediate future.”
Looking back on his career, he started right at the beginning.
“When I got hired here, in (19)98, it was a requirement you had to be a paramedic before you were hired,” he said.
A paramedic is the highest level of EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). The training “has become more rigorous over the past couple decades,” he noted. “It was about a 12-month program when I did it. These days it’s 12 to 18 months. So, it’s fairly intensive.”
Every year includes 24 hours of continuing education, plus recertification every three years. “It’s ongoing,” Norfleet said. “It never ends. Every person here is cross-trained as a paramedic and firefighter. So, every firefighter rotates onto the ambulance or advanced life support rescue during their career. Actually, it’s like one week you’ll be on an engine, one week you’ll be on a truck, one week you’ll be on rescue or ambulance. You rotate. So, everybody here has to be cross-trained to do a lot of things.”
One of those things is bringing people back from a drug overdose.
“This past year, I think there’s been a slight uptick in it,” Norfleet said. “But in the last five years there have been significant increases, like there has been around the country. We’re no different.”
There’s a lot that’s changed over the 22-and-a-half years he’s been with the department. That’s especially evident in his role as a paramedic.
“As far as the technology goes,” he said, “these days, we have so much technology that it rivals what’s in most ERs (emergency rooms). Twenty years ago, it was a lot different. We had very little in the way of technology. We had our skills and clinical acumen, and that was the most part of it. Now, we have a lot more diagnostic equipment and the ability to share that diagnostic instrumentation in real time with physicians at the hospital. We didn’t have that 20 years ago.”
And though it was his training as a paramedic that brought him to the Oswego Fire Department, he found something in the department he liked even more.
“Before I became the Deputy Chief for Emergency Management,” Norfleet said, “I was in charge of technical rescue, road rescue, trench collapse, confined-space rescue, that kind of thing. So, that was my area of focus.” He liked all that the best of all.
“I was recognized a few years ago for a rescue we did with the marine unit out on Lake Ontario during Harborfest,” Norfleet recalled. “A gentleman had a heart attack and his heart stopped on a fishing charter, and they were seven or eight miles out on the lake. We took our small boat out, even though there was a small craft advisory, and managed to meet up with them about five miles off shore, and resuscitated him on the way in. He was discharged from the hospital two days later. He faired pretty well, I think.”
And then, of course, there are the memories of the big fires he fought.
“The Hammermill fire, the fire on Bridge Street where the pizzeria burnt down, the Bridge Street fire where the liquor store burned (Paura’s) a few years ago on Memorial Day,” he remembered. He was in charge of that one, “so that kind of stands out.”
All that experience has taught Norfleet a lot about fires, a lot about how to prevent them, and a lot about what to do and what not to do when faced with them.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular cause (of fires),” he said, “but there are two things I found in my experience that reduce the harm, which are smoke alarms and sprinklers. Regardless of cause, if everybody had smoke alarms and sprinklers, there’d be a lot less damage and injury, that’s for sure.”
Should people fight the fire themselves or call the fire department? “The best bet is usually to confine the fire, close the door, and call 911,” he said.
Should people open the windows? “Definitely not. It gives the fire a fresh source of oxygen and lets it grow a lot faster. If contained and starved of oxygen, it gives us a better chance.”
Did he enjoy his career as a firefighter? “I really have,” he said. “It’s the best job on the planet” and noted “the pleasure I’ve had working with some of the finest people I’ve ever met day in and day out.”