Thursday, July 31, 2014
CHESTERFIELD — When you add it up, these former Chesterfield firefighters logged a total of 155 years fighting fires and responding to emergencies in Chesterfield and neighboring Hilltowns.
The four men likely would have stayed longer, but because each has passed the age of 70, when town insurance no longer covers them, they were forced to retire.
That’s a lot of experience lost. Arthur Smith served the department for 45 years. Spencer Timm, an experienced firefighter joined the team 15 years ago after serving in the town of Sherborn for 36 years. George Wade logged 46 years on the Chesterfield force. Gary Wickland, who is also the town’s police chief, has been with the fire department for 49 years.
“I have been on the department since 1993 and we have never had this many guys retire at one time,” firefighter Roger Bancroft said.
According to Town Administrator Sue Labrie, when the town was renewing its insurance policy a few months ago, she learned the policy didn’t cover people older than 70. This prompted the town to establish a policy that firefighters must retire before they turn 70.
That meant Smith, Timm, Wade and Wickland had to make a quick exit — but not without some fanfare.
Bancroft was one of the 60 people, including family members, friends, colleagues and town officials, who turned out Sunday for a ceremony marking the men’s official retirement from duty at the Community Center on Main Road.
“The Chesterfield Fire Department is losing 155 years of experience and service all at once. This is unprecedented,” said state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. “These people are certainly deserving of our thanks and appreciation.”
Each man received citations from state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, a letter from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, an award from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and a Massachusetts Firefighter Service Award.
Bancroft gave each of the men’s wives a cash award on behalf of the Chesterfield Volunteer Firefighters Association — because everyone knows that serving on a volunteer fire department for so long makes it a family affair.
Bancroft noted that the association wanted to do something nice for their wives, who put up with missed holidays and emergency calls at all hours, not to mention the worry that comes from the risks associated with the job.
“You know, as you get older, it becomes tougher to do some of this stuff. After a while, the thrill starts to wear off,” said Wickland, who has doubled as the town’s on-call police chief since 1987. Though the retirement age applies to him in that position, the town voted to make an exception until someone could be hired to take over the job.
New recruits in the ranks
Fire Chief David Hewes said the numbers in his department were dwindling until very recently, when new members joined up. These days, the force is up to 24 members and six new junior members, Hewes said. Juniors are assigned to a mentor and can assist on the periphery of fires helping with equipment, but they are not allowed to actively fight fires until they are 18 and have the proper training.
Joseph Dastus, 17, a junior firefighter who joined the department in June, said he is happy to be part of the department.
“I love it. It’s fun and interesting and it is just nice to be able to help others,” Dastus said.
Hewes said his department is trying to use Facebook and other social media “to make sure we reach the younger generation.”
Meanwhile, Wade, one of the four new retirees, seemed to appreciate the new blood on the force. Looking around the room at the retirement party, he said with a hint of pride: “We helped train a lot of these guys.”
Whether it is social media, open houses, pancake breakfasts or sporting events, bolstering the ranks of the fire department has historically depended on reaching out to people and sharing how varied and rewarding the experience can be.
“Back when I joined, we had a muster team and that was one of the biggest reasons I joined,” Smith said. “Then all of a sudden, 45 years have gone by.”
One thing that has changed over the years is the technology and techniques used to fight fires and respond to a variety of emergencies.
“The training that we have to do these days, compared to when I first joined, is tremendously different,” Hewes said. “We have a lot of training to do to get the new people up to speed.”
Select Board member Robert Recos said he was proud of the dedication and commitment of all the volunteer firefighters.
“These guys get out of bed at 3 and 4 in the morning or whenever they are called, no matter what the situation is,” Recos said. “Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have them? They are a tremendous asset to the community and a fine example of neighbors helping neighbors.”
After the party Sunday, the four retirees were given a flashy send-off as each one was delivered to his home in Fire Engine 2, with lights and sirens on and a convoy of three other engines carrying the rest of the fire department.
No sooner had the firefighters returned to the station house than they were called to the scene of a house fire in Worthington. According to Labrie, the Chesterfield firefighters were the first on the scene.
Fran Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org