Father Bill speaks

Bill Packard: With Rockport Fire Chief Bruce Woodward and the Learning Chair

Mon, 03/25/2013 - 12:00pm

 There’s a big celebration this weekend for Rockport Fire Chief, Bruce Woodward. If there was any way I could be there, I would. My son is returning from nine months in the Persian Gulf and I need to be in Virginia for his ship’s homecoming. People outside the fire service are already commenting on Bruce’s tenure and commitment to the community. He certainly understands people and how to connect with them, and that shows. For all his years as chief there should have been some controversy. There should have been some issue that was a big public deal. There were no issues. So, maybe a person who is just filling a slot in public service could go through to retirement without making waves. That’s not the case with Bruce. Bruce is an example of what a public employee should be. He has been doing way more than just filling a slot.

...the sign of a true leader. He had educated his people and then empowered them to do what needed to be done.

Bruce understands that citizens pay his paycheck and he respects that. At the same time, it is his responsibility to guide those citizens to protect themselves and their property and then be prepared to protect those citizens with his department and its apparatus when things go bad. It’s a delicate balance.

Bruce and I go back a long, long way. There’s a wooden chair with a cushion in that office and I couldn’t begin to count the hours I spent in that chair at Rockport Fire. I call it the learning chair. If I were part of the planning for Bruce’s festivities, that chair would have a prominent place at the event. Lots of people learned a lot about fire science while sitting in that chair. I remember one time when I had what I thought was a great idea to upgrade a piece of apparatus. I shared my thoughts with Bruce in the little office. His reply was priceless: “Bill, you’ve had some really good ideas. This isn’t one of them.” I got the message.

When I was learning about fire science and how fire behaves so that I could figure out how to put fires out, I spent a lot of time in the learning chair in Rockport, and Bruce was always willing to share his knowledge. We both admired Leo Stapleton and his teachings. Since I left the fire service, the newer, smarter people have found fault with just about everything I believed in. While that’s been tough to accept, I am very proud of the 11 years I spent as assistant chief in Union. Making the best use of what we had, we saved a lot of property and some lives. It was following Bruce’s lead that made that happen. My firefighters knew what to do to get the job done, just as Rockport’s firefighters know what to do to get their job done.

Saturday, March 30
Rockport Firefighter's Breakfast — All current and past Rockport firefighters are invited to a pancake breakfast with Chief Woodward at the Rockport Fire Station at 7:30 a.m.

Parade Lineup — All who wish to participate in a parade celebrating Chief Woodward's Retirement are welcome to line up starting at 1 p.m. on Camden Street in Rockport facing toward Camden. Firetrucks from surrounding towns and counties will line up first. Parade vehicles need to be able to do a minimum of 35 mph. There will be no walking.

Parade — Many firetrucks will be participating in the parade from around the state. The parade begins at 1:30 p.m. and proceeds out on to Route from Camden Street and takes a left onto Route 1 to proceed south toward the Samoset Resort. There will be prime viewing space for the parade in the area of Hoboken Gardens and the old Libby Chevrolet parking lot, at the intersection of Route 1 and Pascal Avenue.

Party — All are invited to a retirement party at the Samoset Resort starting at 2 p.m. and running until 5 p.m. The party will open with light snacks and a cash bar, followed by entertainment and speeches. Participating firefighters need only wear their hometown firefighting pride - this is a casual event.

A couple of fires come to mind that demonstrate how Bruce’s guidance made a huge impression on me. We had a fire in the winter, late at night, on a road off Rt. 17. Mutual aid was called and Rockport was responding. We needed a second line for water from Rt. 17 and another pumper at the scene and that was Rockport’s assignment. I was the officer in charge of the scene. All the mutual aid departments were great and I was always glad to see them on the scene at any fire, but I always felt a little extra relief when Rockport showed up. When the engine arrived in front of the fire scene, I saw there was no line coming up from Rt. 17. With no line, there was no water for the engine. My recollection is my recollection and I had a lot of other things going on at the time, but here’s what I saw. The Rockport guys immediately realized what had happened. There was no talking. No fault finding. They just grabbed the large diameter hose off the back of the apparatus, which is very heavy, and headed toward Rt. 17 on foot, where the water was. And they were running. We had water.

Years later, Rockport had a fire on Central Street in an apartment. There was plenty of apparatus and personnel, but the interior guys were having trouble locating the fire. After the first bottles of air were empty and they were getting ready to go back in, the crew huddled together to share what they had seen and heard. Bruce just listened. After a few minutes, they had figured out where the seat of the fire was and went after it. That is the sign of a true leader. He had educated his people and then empowered them to do what needed to be done.

One of two big fires during my tenure as assistant chief was the Gorden’s Market Fire. Several years before that fire, I attended a tactics and strategy course that Bruce taught at the old prison. We all had to pick a prominent property in town and I chose Gorden’s Market. It would be set on fire and it was up to us to put it out. We all thought that we would win. Bruce knew better. Once the fire scenario got underway, just as soon as the chief officer looked as though he had things under control, Bruce threw a monkey wrench into the works. One by one, we all burnt down the prominent buildings in our towns. It was a very humbling experience and one that all Chief Officers should go through. Many years later when a fire was set at Gorden’s Market, we had been through it years ago. And the end result was the same, which was another lesson that Bruce taught us. Sometimes the best you can do is not let anything else burn. It still feels terrible, but you understand that you can only respond to what you’re called to.

Rockport is a small town, with an on-call fire department, and that’s another tribute to Bruce Woodward and his ability and leadership. If you start documenting the properties in that small town, a different picture is painted. There is a major hospital with associated medical offices and facilities. There’s a major hotel and resort. Two regional school facilities. A YMCA. A transfer station. Several recreational facilities. The water supply for all of Knox county. Are you getting my message here? There are some large facilities that need fire protection and this on call department has responded admirably over the years. It’s impossible to calculate the dollar savings realized by taxpayers because of Bruce and the Rockport Fire Department.

I’ve run on here a bit, but I don’t apologize. There’s much more that could and should be said about Bruce Woodward. I’m sure that will happen at his party. I just feel so very fortunate to have known Bruce, had the pleasure to spend time in his chair, and work with him on so many fires over the years. Well done, my friend. Thanks for everything.


 Bill Packard lives in Union and is the founder of BPackard.com.  He is a speaker, author, small business coach and consultant. 


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