As Schenectady Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco III changed offices over the years, one thing he always brought with him was his old firefighting helmet.
It’s an old-style helmet, made of leather instead of modern composites, and sports a long brim.
“They don’t make them like that really anymore,” Della Rocco said last week.
Some might say the same about Della Rocco, a man who came from a firefighting family but planned to become an English teacher.
But once he was talked into looking at firefighting as a profession, he gave it a try.
“I didn’t expect to be here this long,” Della Rocco said. “But I still like my job very much, and I really feel that sense of service to the community is very important.”
Della Rocco, 62, is set to move on this week as he retires from the department. His formal “walking out” ceremony is set for Thursday, more than 38 years after he started with the department in 1975.
Della Rocco spoke with The Sunday Gazette last week about his long career and his plans for the future. He also spoke about his life outside the department, which includes competitive snowshoe racing.
With the fire department, Della Rocco rose through the ranks from firefighter all the way up to heading the department as fire chief. He was named fire chief in April 2011 after a decade as assistant fire chief.
Della Rocco grew up in Schenectady, the son of firefighter Michael Della Rocco Jr.
Michael III was well aware growing up of the demands of the job — and the dangers. His father, now 87, was seriously injured on the job as a new lieutenant.
The younger Della Rocco studied English and French literature as an undergraduate at SUNY Albany, where he also got his master’s degree.
At the same time, he joined the Gore Mountain Ski Patrol, getting a taste for serving people firsthand.
Soon, talk turned to firefighting.
“I discussed it with my wife, and we decided I would try it for a year,” Della Rocco recalled.
His father recalled some fellow firefighters working on him, too. “I was very proud of him,” the father said of his son rising through the ranks to become chief. “I knew he had it in him.”
Chief Della Rocco’s grandfather was one of the first members of Rotterdam District 2; his brother John Della Rocco is a senior firefighter in Schenectady, and another brother, Bill Della Rocco, has worked as a wildland firefighter.
Watching over Della Rocco and the other firefighters in those early years was Ralph Ruggiero, a captain when Della Rocco joined the department in 1975 and chief from 1983 until his retirement in 1987. Ruggiero became chief the same year Della Rocco became a fire lieutenant.
Ruggiero said he could see the qualities in the young Della Rocco that would send him on to the department’s top job.
“He was a very talented and wonderful person to work with,” Ruggiero said last week, 26 years into his own retirement.
Ruggiero remembered Della Rocco as a quick study, a firefighter who had a knack for teaching others.
Della Rocco also continued in his original career path on the side. He spent 18 years as an adjunct instructor at Schenectady County Community College, teaching English composition and literature, ending in 1995.
He returned to SCCC in 2005 with a more career-specific topic: Fire science.
Devoted to duty
As a firefighter, Della Rocco soon learned about long hours and interruptions. Over the years, he missed his share of birthdays and holidays responding to fires or waiting for that next call.
“That’s tough on the family,” Della Rocco said. “But the rewards of service to people in our community became apparent to me almost immediately.”
Della Rocco and his wife, Juliann, have two grown children, Elizabeth and Michael IV.
Della Rocco recalled that his first call, wearing that leather helmet, wasn’t fighting a fire. It was a call for assistance: An older woman had fallen out of her bed and needed help getting back up.
“We perform services like that around the clock every day,” Della Rocco said. “It’s just a matter of helping people, from something as simple as that to helping the community when there’s a big fire.”
The fires he remembers most are the ones where lives were lost — the 2004 Division Street fire that killed six, five of them children; the 2005 Alvey Street fire that killed three; last year’s Hulett Street fire that killed four, including three children.
On Aug. 4, 1990, Della Rocco was a fire captain on Engine 6 Woodlawn when a fire broke out at an apartment building at 26 Jay St. downtown. Five people were killed. Della Rocco, though, recalled working to rescue one resident who survived.
That resident had jumped down a light shaft between buildings to escape the flames and smoke but was injured in the process. Della Rocco had to climb down on a ladder and carry the man up to a window, handing him off to another fireman.
Answering the call
Eleven years later, Della Rocco was the head of the regional Urban Search and Rescue Team, which had been put together in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. That team headed to New York City hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Six Schenectady firefighters spent 16 days around Ground Zero, with Della Rocco overseeing their efforts. One of their first tasks, Della Rocco recalled, was protecting a communications cable near the Verizon building from further damage when most other cables were knocked out.
Then there were the searches, with Della Rocco’s men using their expertise to try to find survivors. They also recovered objects that could help later in identification, “even simple things as a firefighter’s helmet or a set of keys or a scrap of a dress that someone might recognize,” Della Rocco said.
“The average person probably doesn’t understand the immensity of that scene, not just what they saw at Ground Zero but all the spaces that existed below there,” Della Rocco said.
On Della Rocco’s office wall is a print of the famous photo of the flag-raising at Ground Zero by firefighters honoring the lives lost, including the 343 firefighters killed.
As a fire chief, it has been his style to trust his deputy chiefs. Della Rocco serves as incident commander but also in an advisory role, letting them handle the operations.
He also has made it a point to promote fitness and heart health with his firefighters. His way of assisting with that, he said, is by setting a good example.
Della Rocco keeps active in his down time, running in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter. He finished marathons in 2007 and 2008, and he won Empire State Games medals in snowshoeing in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
Among his first tasks for his retirement will be training. Della Rocco last weekend qualified for the National Snowshoe Championships in Vermont in the 60-64 age bracket. The championships are Feb. 28 to March 2.
Fellow snowshoer and runner Kim Scott has known Della Rocco for 10 years. She also qualified for the snowshoe nationals last weekend and said Della Rocco is always encouraging others.
“He’s amazing,” Scott, 45, of Malta, said. “He’s one of those people that can do anything.”
And Della Rocco has tried to encourage his firefighters to do the same. Along with making sure his firefighters are safe with the proper equipment, Della Rocco said he’s also worked to make sure they stay healthy.
“I think I’ve seen a big change in the wellness and fitness concerns among our firefighters,” Della Rocco said. “And that really makes them safer.”
Part of his reason for retiring now is to give those talented supervisors a chance to move up.
One of the deputy chiefs who has already moved up is Raymond Senecal, who was named assistant chief earlier this month. Senecal is expected to be formally promoted again, to fire chief, once Della Rocco retires.
“I feel that the department is in good shape right now,” Della Rocco said. “And even though there will be a great deal of transition in the upcoming year, the people that will be here will be able to handle it and do so in a very efficient manner.”