Whately Fire Chief John Hannum retiring after 52 years with department

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-31-2023 11:48 AM

WHATELY — What started as following in his father’s footsteps turned into a career spanning more than half a century for John Hannum.

And on his 70th birthday in mid-June, Hannum will retire from his role as Whately fire chief after 19 and a half years in the top spot and 52 years of service since joining the department at the age of 18.

His retirement caps off a lifetime of fighting fires and assisting the residents of Whately, which saw him serve with his brothers and his father, who was deputy chief and then chief. Hannum also spent stints with the Amherst Fire Department and worked as a paramedic around western Massachusetts.

During an interview on his back patio, Hannum said his father inspired him to join the Whately Fire Department, which also led to him joining the Air Force to get professional firefighter training.

“We used to get up from the dinner table and leave my mom there because we had a fire phone in the house. Way back before pagers, that’s when you had fire phones and call lists. … When the fire phone rang, you had a real emergency,” Hannum recalled, adding that technology like pagers and cellphones would send firefighters out for more routine calls. “Today you’re going to go help an ambulance, smoke detectors going off, carbon monoxide detectors going off.”

In that vein, he said firefighters’ roles have somewhat shifted from fighting blazes all the time to preventing fires before they occur and conducting regular safety checks for residents. Part of that shift, Hannum noted, is due to regulations and technology becoming far safer over his decades of service.

“I did more fires when I was a kid than I’ve ever done as fire chief,” Hannum said. “I call this the fire prevention program.”

Reflecting on his work, Hannum said the constantly changing circumstances keep things interesting. His other role as a paramedic also added a different wrinkle into his job. As chief, he added the regulatory and inspection side of the job has changed over the last 20 years, with solar arrays being thrown into the mix and the fire chief serving as one of the main inspectors for marijuana manufacturing facilities, which can use hazardous materials like butane in their processes.

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In taking on all these responsibilities, Hannum said it’s made easier by having reliable people around him, who he can delegate jobs to.

“I have a captain and deputy chief that are as knowledgeable as anything. Everything is run by them,” Hannum said. “I think that makes life so easy. They’re more than willing to support your decision and help you with their knowledge and experience.”

Not every public safety call ends with a good result, though, and it’s those difficult days that can pull you apart, he said. Fatal fires and nasty car accidents are tough to process, but Hannum said part of working with the department involves supporting each other after those tough calls.

“It’s my life, I love my job. Some days it’s a bad day … and the bad days, you make the best of them and hope the next day isn’t a bad day,” he said. “When the sun comes up in the morning and you look around and you see [longtime WWLP reporter] Sy Becker and the state fire marshal at the same fire scene, that’s a bad night.

“I almost hung it up a couple of times,” Hannum continued. “The reason I didn’t walk away was because it’s my guys working the fire. I would’ve felt like I was deserting my people.”

In his retirement, Hannum joked that his “honey do list” is going to get a long longer. He also said he’ll continue to help the Fire Department in any capacity that he can and continue operating his maple sugaring business in the late winter and early spring.

Like many who become pillars of their community, Hannum said his younger self never would have considered this type of longevity as a Whately firefighter, let alone as fire chief. And yet, 52 years later, when that tone goes out, he’s ready to answer.

“Forty years ago I never ever thought I would be in this position; I never thought I’d ever want to be in this position,” he said. “I made it to the end. All my firefighters all went home every night.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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