Members of Explorer Post 700 with the Port Chester fire chiefs. From left, Post members standing: Joshua Lopez and Luis Gonzalez; PCFD Chiefs Michael De Vittorio, Ed Quinn and Kevin McMinn. From left, kneeling: Charlie Nielsen Jr. (captain), Andres Mejia, Peter Corcoran (1st lieutenant), Leonardo Hernandez-Gomez (president) and Stephen Alvarez (quartermaster).
Members of Explorer Post 700 with the Port Chester fire chiefs. From left, Post members standing: Joshua Lopez and Luis Gonzalez; PCFD Chiefs Michael De Vittorio, Ed Quinn and Kevin McMinn. From left, kneeling: Charlie Nielsen Jr. (captain), Andres Mejia, Peter Corcoran (1st lieutenant), Leonardo Hernandez-Gomez (president) and Stephen Alvarez (quartermaster).
Young men and women from Port Chester who were seeking an opportunity to gain experience being volunteer firefighters have also gained recognition when their unit was named 2013 Youth Group of the Year by the Fireman's Association of the State of New York.

President of the group Leonardo Hernandez-Gomez noted how proud he is to be part of the Port Chester Fire Department Explorer Post 700. He "really enjoys attending the drills because [the Explorers] learn how to work the fire hose, open the hydrant, use the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), how to safely rescue someone in a fire and much more." The most memorable experience he has had while serving with the Post has been serving food to the children at the Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla.

Each year, the Fireman's Association of the State of New York (FASNY) selects fire companies that demonstrate achievements in firefighting, fire safety and community service. Nominations for Youth Group were announced in February and Explorer Posts from across New York vied for the title, but in the end it was Port Chester's Explorer Post 700 that took top honors in April when the decision was reached. The Post's commitment to serving the community as well as letters of recommendation from elected officials and Fire Chief Kevin McMinn gave the Post the final victory.

Though FASNY is headquartered in Albany, Port Chester Police Sergeant, former fire chief and founding member of the Post Charles Nielsen does not think the group will be making the trek upstate to attend the annual convention in August where the Youth Group of the Year and other awards for achievements in firefighting will be presented. He has instead arranged a small local recognition ceremony on Sunday, June 30 at the South End Fire Station on Grace Church Street starting at 4 p. m. Nielsen was a founding member of the Post in the 1970s and was ecstatic at the news of receiving the award.

"The Post is near and dear to my heart," said Nielsen. "The Post was blown for a couple years, but when my son was 14, we started it up again."

The Explorer Post has been charging full steam ahead since it was rekindled nine months ago. In addition to training with and assisting the Port Chester Volunteer Fire Department, the Post has performed community service that included bell ringing for the Salvation Army, making activity kits for the children at the Blythedale Children's Hospital and assisting at the Hospital's Christmas party and summer carnival, and donating handmade blankets to the Hudson Valley Firemen's Home. The Post has also raised money for their equipment, uniforms, and travel needs by hosting pasta dinners and charity basketball games. They plan to march in the Hudson Valley Volunteer Firemen's Parade in West Glens Falls later this month .

The Post is currently made up of more than 15 co-ed members from 14-18 years old. Many past

members have gone on to serve as volunteer firefighters for the Village of Port Chester and chiefs of departments in other towns have been Post members as well.

"We've all been through this," said Nick Melillo, a former youth group member and now a PCFD volunteer. Melillo noted that the youth members were a big help, adding that they "do everything the firefighters do except go into fires."

Meetings generally take place every other Monday at 6:30 p. m. at Fire Headquarters/Harry Howard Hook & Ladder Co. on Westchester Avenue. Different companies-there are seven in Port Chester-take turns conducting training sessions. On May 6, with a dozen young men and women in attendance, Ladder 31 conducted a mask introduction

and area search drill.

Peter Kennedy of the Ladder Company gave

instructions on proper procedures for wearing an oxygen mask and what can be expected. All lessons are conducted in a safe and supportive environment.

"If for any reason you feel nervous, call out," said Kennedy.

The members were paired off, and once outfitted in turnout gear and breathing apparatus, they were taken next door to a 20'x20' indoor training facility. Very little light from outside was let in and the room was filled with makeshift obstacles and training exercise tools. The Company leaders explained that their objective was to follow the fire hose that sprawled across the room and passed under various objects, such as a boat on a trailer and a carefully propped up ladder. A smoke machine pumped billowing clouds into the room, music blared from a stereo, and the chaos of a burning building was heightened by the Company members banging on objects and pushing things over. If this sensory impairment wasn't enough, the Explorers had to be alert to "victims" (a knotted up hose pulled through a t-shirt) trapped under a shelving unit nearby. The Company members called out words of encouragement and pertinent tips such as "communicate with your partner" and "seconds matter."

While the other Explorers were waiting to go in, they partnered with volunteer firefighters going over safety protocols, fire rescue procedures and filling air tanks.

The meetings usually run two hours, though the Explorers drill longer in colder weather, as the gear and heavy equipment can become oppressive in the hotter months.

For many, serving in the fire department is part of a familiar tradition, wearing the uniform and serving the community as their parents and other relatives have done. Angelo Sposta, advisor to the Post, noted that many of the current volunteer firefighters such as himself are legacies, with his father and grandfather having served the village. Nielsen has been a volunteer firefighter for 30 years and was chief from 2007-2008, while his father was a firefighter and his 15-year-old son is a member of the Explorer Post.

Although many of the current Explorers do not have a family legacy tied to the department, the skills gained from the program and sense of civic pride they carry with them in all endeavors makes the Explorer Post worthy of accolades.

"We have about 20 kids from [Port Chester] High School coming through this program," said Nielsen. "They get a community service credit from the school, but after a while the credit becomes a second thought."

"I never regret having joined Post 700," said Hernandez-Gomez. "I see it as a great way to give back to our community and I strongly believe being part of a group like Post 700 helps build character."