Q: How did you get into this business?
EB: I was a high school grad, and I went to work in Manomet at an auto repair and service company. The owners were also paid on-call firefighters for that area of town. There were openings coming up, and they came to me and said, "This may be something that interests you, what do you think? You can come down a couple nights when we're having our drill nights, and see what it's like and if you like it, you can put your name in to be considered for the paid on-call department," which I did. And in October 1974 I was appointed to the fire department working at the Manomet station, that's where I lived and worked at the time. Earlier that July of 1974, that station had just been manned by a permanent force. The other substations were strictly on call. The stations had whistles on the roofs which sounded when there was a call. We'd stop whatever we were doing, head to the fire station, get on the truck and respond to the call. Eventually that led to a full time position for me in January 1977. That was a long time ago. So far, I've completed 42 years of service, working on 43. Over the years I worked at the station in Manomet, and then moved over to the West Plymouth station, and then to North Plymouth station, and then I took a job as a fire alarm operator, 9-1-1 dispatcher. In November 2000 there were openings for provisional lieutenants and I got one of the jobs. In November 2007 I was appointed chief.
Q: What was the training involved?
EB: Back in '74, the training for fire was hands on. The fire academy was in its infancy, and didn't offer a lot of programs back then. You had to learn on the job from the people working as firefighters. Coming on in the 70s, I was learning from WWII vets, who became firefighters after returning from overseas. They learned their trade from WWI vets who also became firefighters after returning home from war, the skills had been passed down from generation to generation. Later on there were some avenues for more continuing education. The Plymouth County Fire and Rescue Training Association evolved and the Massachusetts Fire Academy, which is one of the best in the nation right now, began to offer advanced fire training. Nowadays recruits go to an 11-week recruit training program and they get 7 weeks of hands-on in the department. Training has changed hugely over the years, all for the better, as well as the equipment and fire apparatus. I was originally assigned to a 1954 Diamond T pumping engine in 1974. It carried 300 gallons of water, and had a 500-gallon pump on it, and it only had room in the cab for two, the rest of the crew hung on the back for dear life. It was brutal in the winter time—we'd pull the stocking cap down over our face because the snow and hail felt like rocks hitting your face. It's much safer nowadays; numerous safety devices and we all ride in the cab. We had nothing like that back then.
Q: What was it like working with these vets?
EB: Well, they certainly had the experience. See, this was before there were many of the codes and laws, before smoke detectors in homes and sprinkler systems. So when they had fires back then, they were big fires. Living in a home without CO detector or smoke detector, the fires were often and large. And of course there's an older stock of buildings in Plymouth—we go back 400 years—and we had some extremely old buildings that burned ferociously. The vets had a lot of experience and were regimented because they were all veterans from WWII, which was a completely different time. I'm sure they probably looked at us and said, "Look at these kids." They did an excellent job of teaching. They weren't gonna put up with any crap and they made it clear that we better pick it up and learn. They trained me as a pump operator, and the first week I was on the truck a couple of the old guys were on the back step of the truck. We pulled up to a building fire and they said, "If I'm in this building and this water stops comin' outta this nozzle, I'm gonna come out and you're gonna eat this nozzle! You make sure you have me covered!" There was a signal if we did run out of water to get everybody out of the building. So, I made sure they were covered and that the water flow never stopped. I never had to eat a nozzle.
Q: Do you have an early call memory where you learned a hard lesson?
EB: I remember our gear was not the best. We had 3/4 hip boots, that you rolled them up when you got on the truck and a rubber coat, which was heavy. They didn't have a whole lot of protection for heat, the coat and boots were designed to keep you dry back then, not protect you from the heat. Gear has evolved tremendously over the years. So, I was at a building fire down on all fours crawling along the floor. I was on the second floor above the fire floor and I was slipping all over the floor and couldn't understand why at first. Then, I realized that the floor finish, shellac back then, was actually melting from the heat of the fire below. Then we smelled gasoline (this was an arson fire), and we came across several five gallon buckets partially filled with gasoline. I could have bumped into one of those and tipped it over and I and the other two guys would have been toast. You learn those lessons pretty quickly. Luckily, the guys got us all out and then it became an outside attack.
Q: What did you like about working in Plymouth?
EB: When I was in West Plymouth, after Manomet, that area was just getting developed. It was quiet then as all of the homes were new. Slowly, as the housing got older, we started seeing an uptick in calls and it got busier. That station also housed the rescue truck, so we could end up at the other end of town for a motor vehicle accident. Back then we had porta powers and hand tools that they use in body shops to straighten out cars, not the Jaws of Life. We learned special techniques because of the rescue duties. We also had the town's second ladder truck assigned to that station, and it got busy at times. That's what you want when you were younger is to be busy all the time.
North Plymouth was an older section of town, with tightly packed buildings, two- and three-story multi-family homes. There were a lot of buildings in Cordage Park and since then a lot of those buildings have been torn down. It was a busy station because of the population. We did a lot of mutual aid calls into Kingston because we were close to the town line and could get there quickly.
The volume of calls goes up every year. In the last five years we've had some winters that have been pretty bad. The last two recent ones, man oh man. The blizzard of '78 caused a lot of flooding and we were going back and forth on boats on some streets near the beach.
Q: How has the staffing at the fire department changed over the years?
EB: Prior to 1974, the only station that had manpower around the clock was the central station in the center of town. Back then we didn't have 9-1-1, so the dispatch people would take the calls. There was force of 40 firefighters. There was a large number of call firefighters that backed them up as needed. In 1974 the department began to expand and they put four people on a shift at Manomet—the first substation manned. The following year we manned two more, North Plymouth and Cedarville in West Plymouth and Bourne Road. When the Pine Hills development was built, so did Station 3, and the seventh town fire station was staffed. At that point, we no longer had any volunteers or on call. In 2000 they disbanded the call firefighters.
Back then, businesses would understand and allow the call firefighters to leave and respond to a call as a firefighter. Nowadays you can't do that. Someone who is running a business can't afford to have staff take off during a shift, not knowing how long they'd be gone. You had customers to take care of. The full time staff evolved because of the businesses couldn't afford to let people leave their jobs at a moment's notice; we just couldn't rely on that on call resource anymore. It's still viable in many towns, and it works. Carver has the most successful on-call fire department east of the Mississippi River.
We transitioned to a career department, and that's been good. The other issue with on call people was training. It was harder and harder for the call people to do the calls, but also find the time to get training to keep up with their skills. Got to be too much for most of them. They weren't able to keep that program alive. Most of the people in Plymouth work out of town, and the ones that do work in town, the businesses don't want them to leave.
Q: How is the staffing set up now?
EB: We have seven stations in Plymouth covering more than 100 square miles, over 380 ponds, a few miles of Atlantic coastline. Summertime is busy, so the seven stations are manned around the clock with one crew who is dual trained. They're either gonna get on the pumping engine to go to a fire, medical call or answer an alarm or they're gonna get on the brush truck to fight a brush fire in the woods. We have 123 total staff, plus another seven civilians supporting us. That number is down since 2009. We lost some positions in 2008 when the economy got bad. We were able to get five back, but still down four. Everybody realizes that, but I have to supply the best services I can with the amount of money that the townspeople are willing to pay for their taxes.
There are still some areas of town where, on a good day with no traffic and the sun out, we can have twelve-minute or longer response times. It varies quite a bit. In the center of town, we can have a truck on scene within two minutes, full structure fire response on scene with 17 people in about six minutes, other areas of town, that takes 18-20 minutes to happen. The bulk of our populations are in and around the neighborhoods where the fire stations were built over the years. Only about 60% of the town has municipal water with fire hydrants. Other areas of town, although not as populated with that many structures in it, we have to take water with us and we're running tankers and support trucks supplying the water for the fire. And then they put a nuclear power plant in the middle of town, that a lot of towns and a lot of firefighters never haft to deal with.
I remember one time a crew started their shift at 8, and at 9 they were out on Route 3 using Jaws of Life to extricate a patient from a wreck. Then they went to a brush fire for 2 hours in the Myles Standish State Forest, they cleared that call and then went to a fire in North Plymouth involving a multi-story, multi-family structure, and then on the fire boat responding to smoke coming from one of the whale watch boats. Then that night portion of the shift, we had a fire in the support structure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. I don't think there's any other fire department anywhere in the U.S. that could do that in one shift. It doesn't happen all the time, but that's the kind of diversity that my people have to deal with on a day to day basis. And in between they had a heart attack call out on Plymouth Beach, used the defibrillator on the patient to bring them back, and the regular calls that go on. That's the range of things that can happen in this town.
Q: What's the total overview of the fire department?
EB: Total overview of the department is, there's one Fire Chief, myself, and then I have two Deputy Chiefs—Operations and Administration—I have six Battalion Chiefs, four of them are Shift Commanders assigned to each of the four groups, another is the Fire Prevention Code Enforcement Officer, and the other is the Training and Safety Officer. I also have six Captains, they are assigned to a shift at every one of the substations, and they are the Station Commanders for that particular station. I also have 27 Lieutenants; they are the company officers who work at the substation and here at central station. On a typical shift at any of the substations, there's a company officer and two firefighters; three-person shifts. Some shifts it'll be a Captain and two firefighters and the other three shifts it'll be a Lieutenant and their two firefighters assigned to that shift. So there's always around-the-clock coverage. Each station will have a Captain assigned, he's the Station Commander. There's a fire alarm operator assigned to the dispatch center taking 9-1-1 calls and dispatching all of the seven stations' fire apparatus and ambulances.
Q: What would you love to do with the operation if you had the money and resources to work with?
EB: Station seven, in North Plymouth, was originally built in 1910 and housed horse-drawn steam engines. It's old and requires a lot of maintenance and doesn't fit the current apparatus that we're buying today, as it's too small. The town bought a piece of land last year, and we're getting the money to construct a new station. They will sell that old building. We had a similar one on South Street, to house trucks when I was on the job, and that got sold a few years ago and it was turned into a single family and was on the market for a million dollars!
There's other areas of town where we have long response times, and we have large developments being built and we're going to need stations there to serve them. We have developments that are as big or bigger than 60% of the towns in Massachusetts. The Pine Hills development is five square miles, over 3,000 homes, and over a million square feet of business and retail space. And that's just one development. Red Brook is also going to be a good sized development. We need more personnel and stations down there. If there was no limit to funding, we'd be looking at relocating stations and making them larger so they could service the areas and additional stations so we could have good response times to those areas.
And, I'd want to have every crew be a four-person crew. With the three-person crew that we're running now, which is our model only because of funding, there's not enough staff on the trucks to have the safety built in. There are regulations about going into an immediately dangerous to life and health atmosphere, which is a building fire. There should be two people together. Two go in, two stay out. I would add more personnel, and I would make sure my ladders were staffed, not cross-staffed, and then both a ladder and an engine could go out at the same time.
As new properties get finished up go onto the tax rolls, which takes a while, new growth adds to the available funding. But we're also going to be losing the revenue from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station because they'll be shutting that down in June of 2019. Pilgrim was built in 1972 and it's at the end of its lifecycle. They are refueling it April 2017 for the last two years. They are paying $9MM a year to the town in lieu of taxes, plus some other revenue coming to the town, but it will diminish revenue quite a bit. Some of this new development will offset what we're losing. But, we still need to grow. In reality we don't get a lot of calls from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. As the other areas of town are growing, we need more people there, and yet we're losing the income. It's gonna be challenging for the town to figure out how to make all that work and still provide the service that they want.
Q: When are You retiring?
EB: I will have to go in 2020. I could have left years ago; my full retirement was in 2010. I met my age and years in service then. By law I have to leave the last day of the month when I turn 65, which will be April 2020, and it's the 400th Year Celebration in Plymouth that year. I always tell everybody, "Yeah, I'm leaving in April 2020 and there's gonna be a year long celebration for me!" We're gearing up for that and then I'll be done by law. As long as I can stay healthy between now and then; anytime I could go. They ask me, "When will you leave?" and I always say, "TBD." It doesn't mean 'to be determined,' it means, 'two bad days in a row, and I'm outta here.'
Q: What's on tap for you when you retire?
EB: I don't know. One of the things that's always scared me about retirement, and probably why I didn't go when I did reach retirement age, was you have to keep physically and mentally active as you get older. The minute you let any of those slip, then your health slips, so I'll have to keep something going. I have seven grandchildren now and the oldest is seven years old, they are all good ages and there's lots of enjoyment with them. I live and work in the town of Plymouth, and all of my family lives and works in the town. My two sons and grandchildren are within a mile of my home, my brothers and sisters live and work in Plymouth. My family's all here. Hopefully I'll find something to do. I don't know what that is yet. I know I gotta keep moving. I have seen people retire and not have anything planned and not keep busy and their health goes bad and they can't to enjoy all those years they've been able to work for.
Q: Have you thought about teaching in retirement?
EB: No. I was a training officer for a couple of years for the department, and I enjoyed that, it was specific to what I was doing my whole life, but I don't think I'd get into that.
Q: What do you like to do outside of work?
EB: The last four years, both of my sons bought homes in town. We got good deals on them because they were bank owned, so for four years, I helped them tear them apart and rebuild their homes and now they are living in them. My own home is ready for a few touch ups and that'll keep me busy for a little bit. I drive the grandkids to school, so I get to see all seven grandchildren five days a week before I get to work. That's always nice.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being with the kids?
EB: Just watching them grow up. When my two sons were growing up I needed to work a second job. (Typically municipal jobs don't have the highest wages, but good benefits.) I always had two other jobs, so I missed a lot of the time with my two sons when they were growing up and I don't want to do that with my grandchildren, and I won't.
Q: What were some of those other jobs you had?
EB: Early on I learned auto mechanics at that gas station and repair shop, so I always worked on my off time doing the same thing. I had my own auto repair business for a while, and then a friend of mine and I got together and built six homes on a nice piece of land and ran a construction business. We built homes and sold them. I also worked for a property management company later on, for Condominium Owner Associations, doing maintenance and construction. I was assigned to properties handling complaints and issues on the properties in the city. It wasn't until I became the training officer in 2004, that I quit having a second job. Construction still interests me. I still have my Massachusetts unrestricted construction supervisor's license, so that could be something I could look at. Property management, I enjoyed that too, it had good days, bad days, and it kept you busy.
Q: What was the job you enjoyed the most?
EB: Firefighting. It was something different every day, and we were always helping people. Unfortunately something that would have us have a busy day was causing someone to suffer or someone was having a bad day. But we could always make it better. We could respond to a medical call, use a defibrillator and bring someone back—you don't get to do that in any other job. And of course, the people you work with are your second family. Our kids all know each other, babysit my kids, coached little league and football. You're living with them with them in and out of the building and your families are interacting. The other jobs were interesting and paid good, but they weren't like the fire service.
Q: What advice would you give someone coming into the fire service today?
EB: The first thing I tell them is, "You won't believe this, but those 32 years will go by in a flash." Take advantage of any training and education that you can. One good thing about it is that it helps boost your pay, which helps you when you retire, and secondly, it's going to make you safer and a smarter person on the job.
Q: How do you advise younger firefighters regarding handling stress or who have had a bad call?
EB: I explain to them right when I hire them, "I'm giving you a backpack that you'll wear for the rest of your life. Every call you're going to put a pebble in that backpack. After a while, that backpack's gonna become pretty heavy and you're gonna need help. Don't be afraid to go out and ask for help because we're all going through it." We didn't have the resources forty years ago that we have now. We recognize it now; you can hear it in their voice when they have those calls. Now there are avenues available to help them out ahead of time. The backpack story helps them understand. Be ready for it, be aware of it and don't be afraid to ask for help. Until the first time they feel it, it's surreal.
Q: Because of fire safety, sprinkler systems and other Fire prevention technology and building construction, there seem to be less fires and more medical-related calls. How have you seen this in Plymouth?
EB: Over the years the fire service and society has evolved. When I was a little kid and my family had a summer home in Priscilla Beach, and my mother never had a driver's license—didn't need one living in the city—and used a bus to get around in 1959. There was a neighbor next door, so I remember falling and going through a storm glass window and I got a cut, and we'd load up in my neighbor's jeep and drive us to the hospital. Now, we call 9-1-1 and they want that problem taken care of by the professionals in their homes. "I've got a migraine headache, or stomach pains" and they call for an ambulance. They want more services and people who are trained to come out and help them when they have issues. As that's happened, obviously, our call volume has shifted. We have alarm systems and sprinkler systems in homes and buildings and get early notification for fire most of the time. So we're getting there when the fires are smaller. We get a ton of medical calls. Also, our environment has changed so much. There are so many more people with breathing problems and things like that and I don't remember seeing that when I was younger. There's more medical calls going on certainly, and in our department, last year 56% of the calls were medical and the rest were fire calls. We've still got a lot of older stock buildings so we're still seeing a hire number of fires. It is shifting and we are doing more medical calls than we did in the past.
Q: What are your thoughts on paramedicine and how it can change how EMS and hospitals care for communities?
EB: I think it's gonna be a huge benefit for a couple of reasons. For one, it would get our first responders out and into the neighborhoods much more often, and we'll probably save these people from calling 9-1-1 for an emergency. We can help them or give them some advice, and then we can get them to a health care or primary care facility. I think it's big, and I know in other parts of the country it's caught on and has evolved, and Massachusetts is looking at it and wants to get it right, especially anything that has to do with medicine. It boggles my mind how long it's been taking to get it up and running. I think it's going to be a huge benefit for the communities and the health care centers.
Q: What has your experience been working with Brewster Ambulance Service?
EB: They originally came to us in 2013, with a five year contract that included a five year automatic renewal. We did some additional changes to the contract which lengthened the original agreement. They'll now be serving Plymouth until at least 2026. They were in town back in the 80s through the 90s under the original Brewster Ambulance with George Sr. There are a few paramedics that actually worked back then who stayed in town and are now back in Brewster Ambulance uniforms working for the town again. It's great having them. When Mark and George Jr. came around after they resurrected the company and said they had everything in place and were able to take on more 9-1-1 contracts, and at the time they had Middleboro so we were the second town they got. They didn't have to make a second visit, although they did, but I was sold at that time.
I remember those times when Brewster Ambulance was a regular fixture in town and we always felt so safe and we knew the people, the medics and EMTs. I remember the night that we notified AMR that we were no longer going to use them (we had a 90-day clause notification to let them know that we were moving over to Brewster), and one of the people I had to go out and find was Rob Farmer. Rob Farmer was originally an EMT working for Metro Ambulance Service, who held the contract in town. Metro got shaky financially and was taken over by a bankruptcy judge, and the judge sold the company to George Sr. and he got the trucks—which weren't worth much—and the people and the contracts, and one of those people was Rob Farmer who was working with Metro Ambulance in Plymouth. He came over with the sale of the company and became a Brewster Ambulance employee. Then Brewster Ambulance got sold off, and he stayed on working in Plymouth all that time. When we were going to make the change from AMR back to Brewster, I went to him and said, "I promise you, this is the last time I'll ever ask you to change your uniform." There were quite a few of the medics and EMTs that were working for us and most of them were originally Brewster Ambulance employees. They all have great attitudes and trained well.
Q: What's different now at Brewster Ambulance versus the earlier company?
EB: Visually you won't see any difference because they are still as picky about making the equipment and vehicles are the best in the industry and look sharp. Equipment and vehicles and people are all looking top shelf. George Jr. is a real gadget man and some of the technology that he gives his people to work with is incredible and it makes their job easier. It involves more training, but they don't seem to mind that because it gives them an edge. It's still family owned, and you can talk to the owner of the business any time. You don't get that with corporate nowadays. The transition was so easy because of Mark and George—it was almost like changing the wheels on an Daytona 500 car while it was still going around the track. 9-1-1 calls and emergencies were happening with one company at 7:59 and at 8:00 they seamlessly transitioned in with more people, a better trained staff, and took over and it's grown from there. When we saw the need for more resources to be made available, it wasn't questioned. Mark said, "You're right. We're gonna get some more trucks down there." They take care of the town. It's one less headache I ever have to worry about because they have professional people with much more expertise than I have and the town gets the benefit of that.