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July 9, 2013

Former Oneonta fire chief remembered as role model

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

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Former Oneonta Fire Chief Francis “Cootie” Russo Jr. was remembered by colleagues Monday as a good role model who was passionate about firefighter training and community service. 
 
Russo, 83, died at his residence Sunday with his family at his side, according to an obituary, which did not cite a cause of death.
 
Russo served 33 years in the Oneonta Fire Department, with the last eight as chief. He retired in 1991. 
 
Robert Barnes, who succeeded Russo as Oneonta fire chief, said his predecessor and Norman Jacobsen, assistant chief, had created a dynamic department that had the capacity to grow and meet increasing state and national regulations. 
 
“The department was in excellent hands and excellent shape,” said Barnes, who is director of emergency management services for Bradford County, Pa.
In an interview at the time of his retirement, Russo commented on improvements to trucks, rigs and water systems. The department had portable self-contained breathing apparatus units for all city firefighters, he said, a change from the past when crews would decide who would wear them after reaching the scene of a fire.
 
Barnes said Russo’s passion was to “be at the cutting edge” of firefighting service, with well-trained and efficient crews using state-of-the-art equipment.
Training was a major agenda item, not only for Oneonta crews but also for volunteer departments, particularly up and down the state Route 7 corridor, Barnes said.
 
Oneonta Fire Chief Patrick Pidgeon said Russo was his chief when he joined the department as a call firefighter in 1985.
 
“He did a lot of training with us young guys,” Pidgeon said. 
 
Many lessons were about learning to tie knots and throwing wooden ladders, Pidgeon said. The training set standards that enhanced crews’ abilities to work together, he said. 
 
Under Russo, the department was run like a paramilitary organization, with crews expected to follow the chief’s orders, Pidgeon said. But Russo also took advice, listened to various sides and didn’t hold grudges, he said — signs of a good leader. 
 
Russo was recognized with a citation for his work as a dispatcher during the February 1974 propane fire and explosion caused by the derailment of a Delaware and Hudson Railway train in Emmons. Fifty-six people were hurt in the fire. 
 
Before joining the fire department, Russo worked as a brakeman for the D&H. Russo was a lifelong Oneonta resident. His brother, Robert, was a captain, and son, Frank, was a firefighter who retired and is executive director at the Oneonta Family YMCA.
 
A Democrat, Russo ran unopposed to represent the Sixth Ward on the Common Council after retiring in 1991. He served from 1992 until August 1994, when he resigned over frustrations about staffing levels in the fire department.
 
Barnes said he will be in Oneonta this week to attend services for Russo.
 
Pidgeon said the Oneonta Fire Department will provide an honor guard at the private service at Grummons Funeral Home, Pidgeon said.
 
Russo’s ashes will be transported in the fire chief’s car and accompanied by a procession of fire trucks to St. Mary’s Church at 39 Walnut St., where an honor guard will stand outside before the funeral service at 11 a.m. Thursday, Pidgeon said. 
 
After the service, the fire truck procession will pass by the Public Safety Building’s fire department, giving crews on duty a chance to pay respects, Pidgeon said, and a bell on one of the trucks will ring three times as “a last alarm.” The procession will then proceed to the Oneonta Plains Cemetery for an interment ceremony.