After all, when you're the top ranking uniformed member of a fire department with a 300-plus staff, the chances are slim that you're going to get anything, except perhaps a vacation request or a purchase order.
And honors from within your own department? Not when you're the one making the tough calls on personnel.
But when the NHRFR held its second annual Valor Awards presentation last Wednesday at Schuetzen Park in North Bergen, there was McEldowney, getting a pin and a certificate for the Command Award, for his efforts as a deputy chief in helping to save lives during the tense blaze last December at the Cullum Apartments Senior Complex in North Bergen.
McEldowney was one of the first superior officers on the scene on that chilly, wet Friday night, fighting a fire that began in the 14th floor of the apartment complex, located at 6299 Grand Ave. It was a fire that claimed the life of one senior citizen, but could have been far worse, considering the conditions, the intensity of the fire, and the collective ages and conditions of the residents.
McEldowney was one of nearly 50 members of the NHRFR that were honored for their service above and beyond the call of duty.
So while McEldowney was busy handing out the awards for most of the afternoon, he had to receive his own award, which was a different twist on the presentation.
"A lot of the guys I served with on the Fourth Platoon received awards for their work in that specific fire," McEldowney said. "That fire was no small task and featured every aspect of rescue that we train for. There were guys dangling on a rope some 150 feet above the ground. The potential for casualties in a high-rise apartment like that is always there. We could have lost 100 lives that night if we were not properly trained."
In fact, many of the firefighters who received an assortment of honors and recommendations Wednesday were recognized for their work in that Cullum Apartment fire, as well as the trench rescue efforts to save a cemetery grave digger who was trapped inside a collapsed grave last June in the Machpelah Cemetery in North Bergen. Captain Sam Isola, a 20-year veteran who started out in the Union City Fire Department, was also honored for his efforts in the Cullum Apartments blaze.
"It's nice to be recognized by your peers," Isola said. "We don't do it for recognition. We're just doing our job. That day, we just had completed another fire on Bergenline Avenue. We got down to that site and it was cold, damp, snowing, windy. It was an extremely difficult fire. With the amount of fire and the high occupancy, we could have had catastrophic consequences. But we did our job. Getting an award like this is always a little extra special when it's coming from within."
Capt. David Flood, a 16-year veteran of the department who began his career with the old Weehawken Fire Department, was also honored for his work in the Cullum Apartment fire.
"That was quite a busy day," said Flood, who received a Unit Citation for his work. "I think everyone knew that it was going to be a hard one to battle. It was one of those miserable winter days. When we arrived, it was one of the worst fires ever. When you have a high-rise building filled with seniors, there's always an added element of danger."
According to McEldowney, there is a special committee made up of participating NHRFR firefighters and officials, spearheaded by Battalion Chief Nick Gazzillo, that does the painstaking paperwork of sorting through records and recommendations to find the best firefighters worthy of the awards.
"It's a tremendous amount of work to put it all together," McEldowney said. "They spent all year researching for this one day. It may seem simple, but it's really a lot of work. It's only natural that an employer recognize the efforts of the department. It encourages them to want to continue to go above and beyond the call."
"It's the stuff we do on a regular basis," said Flood, who is no relation to the retired NHRFR chief Edward Flood. "It's definitely more rewarding coming from our own."
Bill Laban, a veteran of eight years on the department combined with Union City and the NHRFR, was named the Firefighter of the Year.
"I think it was going to catch me off-guard, but then someone down the firehouse heard the rumor and spread it around, so I kind of knew," Laban said. "It's very meaningful for me, because I love the guys I work with and love working with them. Getting an honor like this is like the cherry on the sundae. We live with each other every day and see each other. For them to come forward and want to honor me, thinking they feel that way about me to make me Firefighter of the Year, well, that's just amazing. It feels great."
Laban also agreed that having the ceremony helps the morale of the entire regional department.
"I think it's well accepted," Laban said. "You can see the smiles on their faces and their families. There's a lot of pride in this room. It's a nice occasion that definitely improves morale."
It's camaraderie that is not lost in the eyes of the fearless leader.
"I told the guys of that platoon that it was my pleasure and honor to work with them," McEldowney said. "There are people who I consider friends that were honored. You can see how much it means. People bring their families, even keep their kids home from school to see what it means to receive an award."