The city fire and police departments celebrated the retirement of Deputy Fire Chief Duane Pierce at a 3 p.m. ceremony Friday afternoon, honoring a mentor and friend with an inspection, salute and plaque.
The city’s continued safety was the top priority in Pierce’s retirement speech. In an unusual step, Pierce criticized the Common Council’s failure to replace the chief of the Code Enforcement Department, leaving only one firefighter in that office. Previously, the chief and a second firefighter oversaw housing safety for the city’s 19,000 residents.
“The worst thing the city ever did to us was take away Spot 19,” said Pierce, referring to the colloquial term for the chief of code enforcement.
The department was downsized to one firefighter after Deputy Chief Bill Knickerbocker retired in 2019. At that time, the then-Chief Charles Clover credited the Code Enforcement office with the reduction of fires in the city. Glover recalled how when he was first hired in the 1980s, the code office was understaffed, undereducated and underfunded — leading to dangerous conditions for firefighters when they entered city buildings and more frequent fires.
But before Pierce was the city’s deputy fire chief, or a fire captain, or even a career firefighter, Pierce was a volunteer at a small, village fire department.
Thirty-three years ago in Chenango County, Pierce became a volunteer fireman for the Village of Greene. After working up the ranks to become the Greene Fire Chief, he was hired by the city on the same day as Ret. Fire Capt. Dave Jensen.
“Where do you start?” Chief Wayne Friedman said, when thinking of Pierce’s many talents. “One of his biggest strengths is the ability to work with people — all people.”
Pierce is known in the department as a friend and mentor throughout the department, said Friedman.
“He has the ability to be respectful, to listen to things and truly be a mentor,” he added.
In 2009, Pierce was promoted to captain and the next year he became the department’s Municipal Training Officer. In that position, Pierce shared his reservoir of expertise and experience with his fellow firefighters, said Wayne.
But training firefighters was already in his blood by then.
In 2001, Pierce started acting as a New York State Fire Instructor, training officers in Chenango County in firefighting basics and in advanced techniques, such as HAZMAT and Special Operations techniques, said Friedman.
It’s this teaching work that Pierce considers as his true legacy, said Friedman at this afternoon’s ceremony.
“His students — how many hundreds there are — would agree,” Friedman told the crowd of city firefighters, police officers, government officials and firefighters from other jurisdictions.
After Chief Charles Gover’s retirement in late 2019, Pierce became the Deputy Chief and Friedman became chief.
By March, Pierce was spearheading the city fire department’s COVID-19 response, said Friedman in an interview.
“Everything shut right down, but we still had to go help people that needed help and protect our own people,” Friedman said. “Duane immediately took the leadership role in that.”
Pierce’s early initiative made him an early expert in how to respond to the virus — expertise he shared in departments across the city.
“The fire department became a hub for the response city-wide,” said Friedman, with the Cortland Police Department, the Department of Public Works and other departments benefiting. “I would like to say that he helped the city and this department and made this city very safe.”
Friedman was thankful for all the time and sacrifice Pierce gave the City of Cortland, but was happy that he would be getting to spend more time with his family after his retirement.
“Duane has given 20 years of himself to this organization,” Friedman said. “I’m very happy for him and his family.”
Pierce also credited his family with supporting him through what started as a demanding volunteer work and became a demanding career.
“I couldn’t really do this without the family,” he said. “They’ve been with me for 33 years chasing fire trucks.”
Pierce’s retirement ceremony was attended by many retired firefighters, including Ret. Capt. Mike Anderson who served as Pierce’s captain and whose own retirement led to Pierce’s previous promotion to captain.
“It’s probably one of the biggest blessings to try to fill his shoes,” Pierce said.
But to Pierce, every city firefighter is a blessing.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with everybody and we have some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” said Pierce. “They represent the community very well every day.”
And safety is what Pierce wishes for the firefighters he’s leaving behind.
“I just want them to come to work safe and go home safe,” said Pierce.