Up from the Ashes: Fire Chief John Fahy’s Transformational Journey

The inspiring story of one man's loss and how he channeled that into a career saving lives.

Tragedy can strike at any moment, and often does so without warning. A catastrophic event can shake us, rock the foundation of our lives, and either cripple us or push us forward to rebuild and restore from the broken fragments. Such a tragedy befell 31-year-old John Fahy, Chief of the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department in Breezy Point, Queens, but he emerged from it determined to fight to prevent such traumas for others. To acknowledge and celebrate Fire Prevention Month, GOOD is partnering with Nest to share the personal stories of the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department. Here, we take a look at the life of John Fahy; his firehouse, what motivated him to become a volunteer firefighter, and the daily struggles and triumphs of his profession.

The Fahy family has a legacy of firefighters and police officers, and John Fahy had long entertained the idea of pursuing the same path. “My Grandfather Joe and Uncle Joe were both volunteer firefighters in Rockland County,” says Fahy. “I always was very proud of that.” His mind was ultimately made up in the wake of two separate tragedies that would forever change his life.

In the early morning hours of April 25, 1996, two months after Fahy’s aunt, New York City Police Department Captain Margaret Fahy, passed away from liver cancer, his uncle, NYPD Deputy Inspector John W. Fahy and his six-year-old son, were tragically killed in a fire that consumed their Breezy Point home. Fahy’s two cousins, John and Megan, then only 12 and five, respectively, were rescued by two off-duty firefighters who lived across the street. Following this devastating loss to his immediate family, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 cemented Fahy’s decision to become a firefighter. “September 11, 2001 was my 18th birthday,” says Fahy. “After I saw the sense of courage and duty those firefighters had, I knew I had a calling to do the same.” Fahy felt compelled to become involved with the volunteer fire department in Breezy Point. By January 2002, he was officially made a volunteer firefighter, saying, “I wanted to be part of the team that charges into a burning building when everyone else is running out.”

Fahy has in fact had to wrestle additional adversity since assuming his volunteer post. Breezy Point was one of the areas hit the hardest by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department suffering significant damages. Braving chest deep seawater, Fahy and his fellow volunteer firefighters evacuated their house and took to higher ground for safety. Amidst torrential rains, 60 to 80 mph winds, and the darkness that fell on the blacked-out city, the men of Point Breeze battled the largest residential fire in New York City since 1865 —it destroyed 126 homes and caused massive damage to another 22 residential structures. The aftermath of Sandy not only ravaged the Breezy Point community, but also destroyed most, if not all, of the fire department’s equipment, making efficient post-storm rescue and cleanup near impossible. “Since the storm, we have pushed ourselves to be the best we possibly can be,” says Fahy. “In the days and months after the storm we rebuilt, and now, two years later, we make sure we are prepared to handle whatever is thrown our way.”

Coming up on his 13th year at Point Breeze and second as chief, Fahy has dedicated his life to being on the frontlines of firefighting, but also fire education. “Fire safety and prevention is the grassroots of my term as chief,” says Fahy. “It is our sole purpose to protect our community and that is why we should give the people in it every chance to live more safely.” This includes educating residents of Breezy Point, as well as the greater NYC population, on smoke and carbon monoxide detector maintenance, and the importance of having an evacuation plan established in every household. In Fahy's mind, education is the single most important facet of fire prevention, as it’s the first step to ensuring the safety of their constituents. With more than 3,400 Americans dying and approximately 17,500 injured due to fires annually, fire safety and awareness are crucial. Fahy and his team of volunteer firefighters regularly hand out fliers, hold informational meetings, and reach out to the community to increase their preparedness for a myriad of situations, including house fires, carbon monoxide, and natural disaster.

Fahy at lunch with his team

It hasn’t been an easy road, Fahy admits, but being a firefighter has become the foundation of his adult life. The Point Breeze Fire Department is a brotherhood, a tightknit group of dedicated citizens who willingly serve and protect others, without expecting anything in return. “It’s a very close fire department and we pride ourselves on doing it for free,” says Fahy. “While holding a full time job [outside Point Breeze], I push to dedicate at least eight hours of my day to my firehouse. When I am not there physically, all I’m thinking of is the firehouse and ways to better us.”

Being a public servant is a constant sacrifice, not only is it a sacrifice of time away from family and friends, but these volunteers are also risking their lives on a daily basis to protect people whom they have never met. Chief John Fahy and the Point Breeze team gladly face these challenges and risks head on, and are a testament to the human spirit and will to do good.