Story by Sara Paul
When Michael John Batz became a firefighter in 1959, notification of a blaze was literally through word of mouth. With no iPhones or even pagers, news of an alarm was only heard by those within earshot of the cacophonous horns atop the firehouses.
Back then Warwick Valley Telephone (WVT) was responsible for signaling the fire horn. Volunteers would dial “O” and the WVT operator would dispatch fires.
Before long, dispatching changed to CB radios, to now pagers, and even the Rover app, which relays every fiery detail from the location and directions to the commanding hierarchy. Responders can view a full summary of the situation and send each other messages on the app.
This year, the former chief of the Warwick Fire Department (WFD), (1977 to 1979), Captain of Raymond Hose Company (1967 to 1969), and the Warwick Fire Commissioner (1992 to 1997) looks back on a 60-year timeline of the trials, tribulations, tools, and technology that has made and changed the Warwick Fire Department.
“It’s great to see so many improvements,” said Batz, a Village of Warwick resident who recalls some frigid drives in the old convertible Mack firetruck.
The new, eight-man, KME 1500 gallons per minute (gpm) and 3,500 gallon Mack Tanker are welcome upgrades.
“It’s a lot nicer and a lot more comfortable now,” John said of the shiny trucks loaded with automatic transmission, power steering, and air brakes.
The late 1970s were also plagued by challenges like gas rationing and potentially dangerous wood stoves with poorly installed pipes out windows.
“It was ridiculous. We were going crazy, running from our own businesses to fires and then back to our businesses,” said Batz, who also recalls his arrival at the 1977 inferno that devastated the Dutch Reformed Church in Warwick.
It was an all hands on deck emergency on Apr. 24, 1977 as flames devoured church pews and precious religious relics.
“It was really the worst fire we’d seen because the whole roof was burning. The structure was completely caving and we were scared the church bell would fall. Thankfully, it did not fall,” said Batz, noting that Assistant Chief George Green led firemen suffering from smoke inhalation out of the church.
With Goshen fire companies racing to the scene as well, Batz emphasizes the importance of mutual aid, meaning assistance and support from other firehouses. Unfortunately these days, mutual aid is scarce, yet more critical than ever.
“People used to work local, but now they travel a distance to their jobs so it’s difficult,” Batz explains, adding that Raymond Hose offers assistance to other communities like Chester, Pine Island, Florida, and Greenwood Lake. The Raymonds have traveled to wicked blazes as far as Hardystown, NJ and Cornwall, NY.
Giving himself, his time, his heart, his all, John Batz is still a dedicated fireman to this day. In 2018, out of 500 calls, the sturdy, towering 6’2” gentleman attended 389, usually as a driver, according to firehouse attendance records.
Batz was born in St. Anthony Community Hospital in Warwick in 1941 to Fred and Margaret Mabee Batz, both deceased. With his brother Fred, John grew up in Bellvale, graduating in 1958 as part of the last class at the old Warwick High School, now Park Avenue Elementary School.
While working for a plumbing and heating business in Warwick owned by two brothers, a fire chief and a captain, John became interested in the Department. He was elected into the WFD using the now antiquated “Black Ball System” for voting in members.
A kind of anonymous, and somewhat controversial, process, members would pass around a small wooden box filled with black and white marbles which were separated into two compartments. If a potential firefighter received three black balls in the voting compartment, they were rejected. These days, the houses use a paper ballot voting system.
Having received zero black balls, then 18-year-old John was voted into the Raymond Fire Hose Company on Apr. 18, 1959.
He continued to work in the plumbing and heating business until 1966 when he went to work for Motor Stoker, a heating company in Warwick. He later bought the company, running it under the same name. Next, he opened Batz Quality Supplies on Main St. He sold the business around 1999 and worked as a part time building inspector for the Village of Warwick until 1987 and also the Village of Tuxedo Park until 1994.
Batz became a fire dispatcher for the County of Orange (1994 to 1999), the building inspector for the Town of Warwick (1999 to 2010), and a volunteer fire investigator for Orange County (1987 to 1998). He was also selected by former Orange County Executive Joseph G. Rampe to sit on a transition task force in 1993 to discuss local economic and government improvements.
With work at the forefront, John had a spare moment in 1965 and went on a blind date with a gal named Frances. The two were married in April 1966. Frances passed away in November 2013 after a lifelong battle with Systemic Scleroderma.
John and Frances were married for 48 years. Their son, Michael, joined the Raymonds in 1983, became chief in 2001, and is currently a fire commissioner in the Warwick Fire District. Their daughter, Michelle Jean, is an accounting clerk in Orange County.
With firefighting in the family blood, John’s nephew, William Batz, also joined the Raymonds in 1975 and is still an active honorary member.
“It’s like a family business. You grow up with dads or moms leaving birthday parties or holiday gatherings when there’s a call,” notes Batz, who was called to alarms three years in a row on Christmas day.
With work acquaintances becoming dear friends, Batz tells of the many social gatherings in the firehouse, where bonds were formed.
“It really becomes an extended family… if someone had to move, we’d move them. If someone got sick, everybody came together to help out,” says Batz, now a judge at fire department parades such as the Port Jervis and General Montgomery Day parades and the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Goshen.
With one acre in Warwick and four time-shares, John finds some leisure time with long-time companion, Arle, both at home or traveling to choice US destinations like Missouri and the Carolinas.
“As long as I’m healthy, I will stay active,” says John, who turns 78 in April, adding, “I will continue responding to emergencies. I enjoy the Fire Department and its fellowship. You make friends for life.”