Most people who grew up in the greater Patchogue area over the last 60 years are familiar with the Forty Thieves. Firematic competition has roots that go all the way back to the mid-1800s, during the era of Tammany Hall and the “Gangs of New York,” when fire companies actually competed to put out structure fires and salvage the remains. Sometimes these competitions resulted in fist fights between companies as the building burned out of control.
A more modern “friendly” competition between companies and later, between departments, came about at the turn of the century. The Patchogue Fire Department joined in on this competition beginning in 1914 ladder events eventually became motorized, utilizing vehicles of the era. Specific competitive events progressed and changed as the vehicles became more modernized and powerful. In today’s competitions, eight standard events are contested: three non-motorized events-three-man ladder efficiency hose, and the bucket brigade; and five motorized events-C class hose, C class ladder, B class hose, B class ladder, and B motor pump. The difference between B class and C class is in the weight of the
vehicle and the distance travelled. B truck is heavy and runs a short distance; C truck is much lighter and runs a longer distance.
All events are timed to the hundredth of a second, and many times in their long history the Fo have broken and set New York State records, some of which held for many years. Starting in the early 1960s under the guidance and leadership of Coach Jake Parris, the team was built up with many active members, 70% of whom were graduates of Patchogue-Medford High School. In the later 1970s, the team started to become extremely competitive, and by the early ’80s it had won a sensational 27 tournaments in a row. The Forty Thieves eventually won seven New York State championships. They became known nationwide from coverage in newspapers and national trade magazines such as Fire News. The team was seen on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, featured in television commercials, and participated in Drill Team demonstrations in Las Vegas, Florida and elsewhere around the country, always generating fame and good will for Patchogue and its Fire Department.
Some highlights of the team’s competitive record for the years 1978-1992:
- 75 first-place finishes, 28 second-place in a series of 144 motorized drills
- 27 consecutive tournament victories, 1981-84
- 39 times set New York State records, 1981-84
- Seven New York State championships
The Forty Thieves continued their winning ways through the ’90s and early 2000s and were recognized by the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 as the first recipient of their Special Recognition Award given for outstanding athletics and community service. As with all things, change has come to the Forty Thieves, as members have aged and some retired and moved away. The loss of Jake Parris in 2009 was met with sadness, and contributed to the team’s decision to suspend active competition.
For the crowds of fans who followed the team for all those years and remember the excitement of the tournaments on Rider Avenue in Patchogue, and those who made the charter bus trips to upstate towns to support their hometown team in state competition, the memories will live on. Hope springs that eventually a renewed spark of competition will inspire the members to once again become an active team, and supporters can once again hear “On the line!… Number one on your program!… The Forty Thieves!… From PATCHOGUE!!”