Casey Croucher/Recorder Staff Amsterdam Fire Chief Richard Liberti stands next to one of the department's fire trucks.
Casey Croucher/Recorder Staff Amsterdam Fire Chief Richard Liberti organizes his locker for one of the last times.
By CASEY CROUCHER
When asked to describe Amsterdam Fire Chief Richard Liberti, co-workers, friends and city officials all define him as calm, humble and hard-working.
"He's very modest," said Mayor Ann Thane. "He would never boast about his work and that speaks volumes for him. He's so humble, yet he's so strong and confident in his work."
"Every time we went to a fire and we worked with [Liberti], he always had such an amazing presence, just a completely confident and calm presence," Amsterdam Police Chief Gregory Culick said. "I never had a moment of doubt with his plan of action to handle an emergency situation or fire situation."
"He's a great, hard-working chief who respects all the firefighters," Amsterdam Fire Battalion Chief Peter McNamara said.
Liberti, a 34-year member of the Amsterdam Fire Department, will be retiring from his position July 27. The Amsterdam native began his time with the department in 1980 and was appointed chief in 1996.
He said he originally joined AFD because he knew a few firefighters and they influenced him to give it a try. One of the firefighters, former mayor John "Duke" Duchessi, a close friend of Liberti, inspired him.
"[Liberti] and I met when I was hitch-hiking to class one day," Duchessi said. "We both went to SUNY Brockport and I got picked up by a guy with a ponytail and a pick-up truck, and I immediately recognized him because I knew his family, and that's how our friendship began."
Duchessi said the two formed a leather business together after graduating college, and then Duchessi became a firefighter and influenced Liberti to follow suit a few years later.
"He has been a very, very good chief," Duchessi said. "He has a very calm demeanor that really suits him for the job, and he's talented. Even around the fire house he has a very quiet, steady demeanor and that just suits the atmosphere."
Liberti said once he started his job as a firefighter in the '80s, he fell in love with it.
"For me, it was probably the best job I could find," he said. "It's kind of hard to beat because you spend most of your time trying to help people."
As he sat in his office with a steady stream of voices crackling over a two-way radio, Liberti calmly described two moments of his career he will never forget.
"The first Mohasco Hill Complex fire in August of 1992 is something that will always stay with me," he said.
Liberti was off-duty when the fire started, and there were fewer than 10 firefighters on duty. He said he arrived at the scene shortly after the department called for backup.
"Just as we were pulling into the site, the first building collapsed, and all I saw was the building coming down and a half a dozen firefighters scurrying. Luckily, no one was injured," he said.
The fire, later attributed to arson, leveled eight buildings in the complex and damaged seven others. Three Long Island men, including the building's owner, Nissim Mizrachi, were tried and convicted of torching the former carpet mill for profit. The building was reportedly insured for more than 20 times its purchase price at $14 million.
Liberti said it was the largest fire of his entire career and the biggest fire in the state in 1992.
"I think more than 140 firefighters were there, and I think I worked more than 30 hours of overtime straight; everyone was on duty for days," he said.
The flames took a week to completely extinguish, and debris took months to clean up, he said.
"We worked day and night; I'll never forget how eerie it looked at night because you'd still see little fires burning. It was like something from a movie," he said.
When he found out the cause of the fire, Liberti said he was very upset.
"It was terribly frustrating," he said. "I almost felt betrayed."
Another moment in his career he said he will never be forgotten was when Tropical Storm Irene hit the city in 2011.
"I got a call early in the morning from the Emergency Management Department and they were anticipating what the storm would be like, so I met with the department and the mayor and we got a lot of information together to prepare for flooding," he said.
Liberti said his department monitored the Mohawk River and the Chuctanunda Creek to see how fast it was rising.
"We split up the fire and police departments between the south and west side," he said. "It was scary seeing how fast the water was rising. It was a situation where you didn't have any control over what was going to happen, all you could do was monitor it and report to others. It's something I'll never forget."
Liberti said he's experienced a lot of moments where helping residents in situations felt good, but other times it was frustrating seeing foolish mistakes.
"There was one frustrating incident on Brookside Avenue where the family called up our emergency crew to help out because they were all feeling ill," he said. "The father of the family made a big mistake."
He explained that the family was renting a house and wasn't able to pay their National Grid bill so they didn't have any electricity. The father told Liberti that the family got $400 worth of groceries, mostly consisting of meat that they didn't want to spoil even though they had a freezer. The family had a generator and the father didn't want to bother the neighbors with the sound of the generator, so he put it in the basement.
"He almost killed his whole family from carbon monoxide," Liberti said. "Luckily, one of the kids started throwing up or else they easily could have died. There wasn't any carbon monoxide detector."
He also recounted a story about a house fire where a 6-year-old child set the blaze with a cigarette lighter. He said the AFD put the fire out, noticed there weren't any smoke alarms and installed them for the family. Liberti said he noticed where the fire started and pointed it out to the mother after installing a smoke alarm.
"The mom was a smoker, so that's where the cigarette lighter came from, and on the front porch, on the windowsill, there was a pack of cigarettes, a cigarette lighter and half a dozen cigarettes that had been put out on the windowsill," he said. "That's frustrating and pretty dangerous. We pointed it out to her and she said they seemed to go out fine, but I told her she needed to get an ashtray. The emergencies where common sense wasn't used are the most frustrating."
The fire chief said over the course of 34 years, he's seen a lot of changes happen to the fire department.
When he first started his career, AFD only received about 800 calls per year. He said this year, the department has received 3,000 calls to date.
However, unlike the call volume increase, the number of department members has decreased from 45 members in 1980 to 33 members currently.
He also said the training involved with being a firefighter today has increased tremendously. Today, a firefighter's basic training lasts 14 weeks; emergency medical technician training is 100 hours; paramedic training is 1,500 hours; and, firefighters are trained to deal with hazardous material.
Liberti said the department has added the extra training because the department is involved with so many different services compared to years ago.
When he transformed from firefighter to fire chief, he said he noticed a change in his point of view as well.
"One of the things I noticed as chief is being responsible for everybody," he said. "On the outside you see things they don't see, and you would think we'd have to maybe push them in because it's unsafe, but usually it's the opposite, we have to pull them out. It's impressive."
He said being chief he has to be even more aware of the situation so that he can protect his firefighters.
"You have to make sure they don't get in too far; you tell them it's time to get out and they'll argue, 'No, we can stay in here for a few more minutes,' and you have to tell them it's time to go," he said. "It's all about protecting them."
When asked what he'd miss most about his job he simply said "the people."
"Not only the folks from the fire department but everyone in [the Public Safety Building,]" he said. "All the police officers, the support staff, everyone."
He said serving as fire chief in the city of Amsterdam has been a pleasure and an honor.
"I've served with a lot of generations of great firefighters," he said. "And I've worked for a great city; there are a lot of really good people here."
Those who knew him said they'd miss him as well.
"It's really going to be such a loss to the city when he retires," Thane said. "I've learned so much from him, and his department functions so beautifully, which is also an indication of the caliber of the man in that position."
"It's definitely going to be an adjustment here at the department when he leaves," McNamara said. "We've had a lot of stability and security here with Chief Liberti and he will be missed."
"Any time we had a call, he was always there for us," Lt. John Paris said. "He was always fair, he was a hands-on chief who worked by your side and he worked to make sure we had everything we needed; he'll be missed."
As for the chief, he plans on using his retirement to work on a house he has in Fort Johnson and spending time with his family.
"I'll miss my job, but I'm looking forward to this new chapter in my life," he said.