Robert Baumann, an honorary Valley Stream fire chief, who served as one of Engine Company No. 2’s most active chauffeurs, and who was beloved by both fellow firefighters, friends and family for his light-hearted attitude and dedication to the fire services died in Port St. Lucie, Fla. on Feb. 21. He was 76.
Known as Bobby to friends, Uncle Bob to family and affectionately referred to as “The Hump” by his fellow firefighters, Baumann was a third-generation firefighter in a family of firefighters and would inspire future generations to join the fire services.
“He absolutely served as an inspiration,” said Baumann’s great nephew Brian Gerrato, recalling that some of his fondest memories of his great uncle included sleeping over Baumann’s house, located directly behind Engine Company No. 2’s Brooklyn Avenue firehouse, and watching him take off after getting a call on his department radio. Gerrato currently works as a New York City firefighter.
The Valley Stream Fire Department, he said “was everything to him.”
As Company No. 2’s most prolific driver during his active service, Baumann was instrumental in designing and procuring Company No. 2’s fire truck, Engine 342. His name is emblazoned on its windshield with the words, “In loving memory of Bobby Baumann,” and will remain there for the rest of the truck’s operational life.
“He was a true friend to the company and all of our members,” said fellow Engine Company No. 2 firefighter John Beck. “He would give you the shirt off his back, and was one of the most knowledgeable guys you’d want to know.”
“Everybody knew him, everyone loved him,” his wife, Kathy said of her late husband of 39 years. The two had known each other since early childhood growing up in Valley Stream, their fathers both served in the Valley Stream Fire Department.
She recounted Baumann’s penchant for practical jokes. “He was the type that would put smoke bombs in the ventilation ducts at Central High School,” she said.
He joined the Valley Stream Fire Department the moment he was able to at age 18, while still a senior at Central. During the time he was a probie, or probationary firefighter as first-year rookies are referred to, Baumann established himself as a prankster in the department when after being ordered to paint the floor of the truck bay at its Rockaway Parkway headquarters, he intentionally painted himself into the corner in which the beer refrigerator was located, trapping himself with it, and the beer contained inside, for hours until the paint dried.
While he always had time for a joke, Baumann was deadly serious when it came to saving lives.
In 1977 he was honored with the Fireman of the Year Award for his efforts saving a two year old who had stopped breathing. Baumann was first on the scene at the house on Horton Avenue where the call had come in, and her situation was so dire that he and the chief at the time rushed her to a hospital, not waiting for an ambulance to arrive, as Baumann kept her alive, covering the child’s mouth and nose with his, and assisting her breathing.
“The doctors said she wouldn’t have made it if Bob hadn’t been breathing for her,” Kathy said.
He would have some close calls too, his wife recalling him narrowly escaping the collapse of the Temple Gates of Zion synagogue in 1979 from a deadly fire that claimed the lives of Valley Stream firefighters John Tate and Michael Moran.
Around the same time, another office building had collapsed on Baumann in a fire, this time on Franklin Avenue. Kathy recalled being told by him and his fellow firefighters that he had emerged from the rubble, fallen debris having pushed his helmet so far down that most of his face was covered, and then “went for a beer,” she chuckled.
Baumann had a penchant for rescues even while not on duty. He once received a commendation from the Garden City School District, where he worked for 20 years as a mechanic and bus driver, for helping a fellow mechanic after a bus battery exploded in his face.
In the Fire Department, Baumann was often behind the wheel of Engine Company No. 2’s fire truck, and was known to be the first on the scene at every emergency.
“He was always driving,” his wife said. “The joke in the company was everyone was trying to beat him there.”
“He was one of the best chauffer’s Engine No. 2 has ever had,” Beck said.
Baumann’s fellow firefighters would eventually coin the nickname, “The Hump,” for him, which came from his joking but curmudgeonly attitude.
“He was always a tough character in the firehouse,” Beck said of the nickname’s origin, explaining that when welcoming new volunteers, Baumann would serve as a point of intimidation for the new recruits, or “the hump” they would need to overcome to make it in the company.
Despite not living in Valley Stream the last 17 years of his life, Baumann remained active in its Fire Department, often visiting and consulting, and scanning social media to notify his fellow firefighters of emergencies.
The firefighters, Kathy said, “would always kid about how he knew more about what was going on up here than they did.”
“Bobby’s going to be missed by all,” Beck said. “He was just a great fireman, great asset to Engine No. 2 and great asset to the Valley Stream Fire Department.”
Baumann would go on to drive even after his retirement from Garden City schools, moving down to Florida in 2002, and continuing to work as a bus driver.
“He loved the kids,” Kathy said of his continuing to bus children even into his later years.
“He loved it,” she added of driving the oversized vehicles — be it a bus, a cargo truck in the Army or a fire truck, “It was his thing.”
In addition to Kathy, Baumann is survived by his sister Ruth; her three children; his grand nephew Brian Gerrato; grand nieces Jennifer, Katie and Erin; and Gerrato’s three children. He was predeceased by his sister Barbara. In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be made to the John Tate and Michael Moran Memorial Burn fund at P.O. Box 124 or the Nassau County Firefighters Burn Center at P.O. Box 246.