Throughout my stories, you hear me speak about The Chief. That’s how I address him to this day and that’s how he addresses me. It’s a strange bond that has no logical explanation other than the Seabees, the Fire Service and timing. We both served in the Navy Seabees stationed in Davisville, Rhode Island, but not together. The fire service was one of the most important effort in our lives and it was a time of change in our town fire department.
With the Seabees, there is always a way to get tasks done and no matter how well it goes, there’s always a better way to do it.
At the time, our fire department voted in officers. The feeling was that a majority of the firefighters should choose whom they wanted to lead.
For 11 years, the Chief and I were elected to the top two positions in the department, positions we took seriously. Lest anyone gets the wrong idea and think this is going to be a piece about how warm and fuzzy the Chief was, and is, forget it. Our firefighters would probably say that the Chief was Gruff and that capital G is not a typo. Let me tell you a little more about that.
The Chief was dedicated to keeping citizens of our town safe. Sometimes that meant keeping them safe from themselves.
He was passionate about his and my responsibility for the safety of our firefighters. On the fire ground that was a given, but it applied elsewhere. If a firefighter was reported driving crazy in a personal vehicle responding to a call, they could expect a chat with the Chief, which would leave them understanding that they should never do that again.
One day, a fire call came in as a fire in our town when actually it was in a neighboring town.
As is the case in many towns, o weekdays, there are not many firefighters around, so we had all our available people fighting a fire in the neighboring town. As it turned out it was a pretty decent stop where things went well and I was feeling fairly proud of our performance.
Until I talked to the Chief.
The Chief worked out of town, so he was not able to respond. He had little interest in our performance at the out-of-town fire, but wanted to know who it was that I called to cover our town. Of course, I hadn’t and he knew it. He proceeded to explain to me that the citizens of our town were our priority and while we would always do anything we could for our neighbors, never leave our town unprotected. I never did again.
From time to time, people would complain about the Chief’s gruffness. I would tell department members to just get over it. Sometimes to town officials I was a little more diplomatic. You see, I don’t think most of these folks understood.
Looking back, I doubt any other firefighters and certainly no town officials ever saw the Gruffness I saw from The Chief. I never took it personally because I knew how much he cared. Remember that sentence near the beginning about Seabees always wanting to do things better? That’s what the Chief was all about. His expectations were extremely high, and I was always proud that he believed in me.
He had certain rules. He and I were not allowed to be recognized for anything. It was our job to go above and beyond for the citizens of our town.
He did break that rule by being behind a secret plot to recognize me at the annual banquet, but I got even. Anytime there was an opportunity, the firefighters were the ones that got the recognition. And rightfully so.
We had a deal on the fire ground. Actually it was his deal and we never really talked about it to anyone else, but he trusted me to command the incident while he oversaw the whole operation. While the casual observer would think that putting out the fire was the main task, there are many things going on and safety was always paramount to the Chief.
People would hear me on the radio at a scene and wonder where the Chief was. Most of the time, he was right beside me or over by an engine looking at the big picture. If he didn’t like something that I was doing, we would have a talk. I’m happy to say that didn’t happen very often.
The Chief and I would brainstorm for hours long before I ever heard the term. We would talk about equipment needs and how we could serve the needs of the town with the least amount of expense. We’d talk about properties in town that concerned us if they ever caught fire and spent night after night working out preplans. Everything we talked about always had a “What if?” We never came up with a preplan and patted ourselves on the back. We always took a second look, asked “What if?” and created a backup plan.
The calls after a fire were always the most difficult. No matter the outcome, we both always felt we could have done better and that consumed us for days, sometimes weeks or months, and even to this day over breakfast. You can ask our wives.
I learned a lot from the guy. He gave his heart and soul to the town. I hated how it ended for both of us. We had a lot more to give. Things happen and life goes on. I don’t know how we would fare as chief officers in the fire service today. All he cared about and all I cared about was having a volunteer fire department that others in the business looked up to. We wanted our town to have the best fire protection for their tax dollars. Political correctness and warm and fuzzy were not our strong suit. It was a great ride. We had a lot of fun. We made some lifelong friends.
More Bill Packard
Volunteer firefighting is one of the most rewarding, fun things anyone can do if they’re on a department with the right culture. My hope is that these stories can create enough interest in even one person to join a local department and feel the satisfaction that comes from being a firefighter and understand what makes it so special.
Bill Packard lives in Union and is the founder of BPackard.com. He is a speaker, author, small business coach and consultant.