Goonan: Decision to retire comes after the most ‘sad, tragic, difficult’ year in his years of fire service

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Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan will retire, effective April 30, 2021. File Photo/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH – Chief Dan Goonan says he’s been hearing the rumors of his retirement from the rank and file around Central Station for a long time now. Speculation is not unusual in any new year, when it comes to who is going to announce they’re stepping down and out of public life.

While word of his intention to retire April 30, announced Friday by Mayor Joyce Craig, may have come as a surprise to some, the only surprise for Goonan was that he made it through 2020, a year like no other in his 36-plus years as a firefighter. 

The decision to end a lifelong career in fire service comes following his most challenging year ever – a year everyone would like to forget.

“The tragedy and stress for me was tough. Everything ends up at the top and it does wear on you, and it affects you,” says Goonan. “I’m kind of an emotional guy and so it gets to me, constantly asking myself what could I have done to prevent certain things, or what could I have done differently. I’ll tell you, fire chief mental health is real.”

As fire chief Goonan also serves as the city’s Director of Emergency Management, which means being at the front lines of every crisis that affects the city, from the drug epidemic and a worldwide pandemic, to homelessness. 

Not only did he lose three firefighters in 2020 – two to suicide and one to a medical condition – but the personal man-hours required to guide the city’s direct response to COVID-19 and carry the weight of it all have taken a personal toll. 

From left, Mayor Joyce Craig, Manchester Health Department Director Anna Thomas and Manchester Fire Department Chief Dan Goonan on March 19, 2020 at the city’s Office of Emergency Management dealing with COVID-19 protocols. Photo via Twitter.

The question of when he would call it a career has been on his mind for a while now, but it was from the mouth of babes – something his 10-year-old daughter said to him recently – that sealed the deal.

“Your kids kind of pick up on things, and when my daughter brought home a pamphlet from school and said, ‘Why don’t you try square breathing, dad?’ – it’s a technique they teach the kids to manage stress – I knew it was time,” Goonan says. “When your kids start figuring out you’re feeling the weight of your job, well, that’s just too much. Life’s short. I have a beautiful family, grandkids, young kids. There is going to be a lot of baseball and traveling this summer, and I’m going to be there for it.”

He says the words of his late father and namesake, Daniel Goonan, who served as a city police officer for 20 years, have been swirling around more than usual.

“He said ‘Danny, remember what’s important. Please spend time with your family – don’t do what I did, work like a crazy man. Family is what’s important in the end.’ I remember a lot of that, when he was on nights we were on days, and when he was on days it was tough to get to games. I promised him I wouldn’t do that and I feel like it’s time to keep that promise.”

Fire Marshal Bill Degnan, left, and Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan during a brief news conference following a fatal fire on Wilson Street in 2016. File Photo/Carol Robidoux

If it were up to his wife Denise, a former fire captain in Tucson, Arizona – who he says has been supportive as any wife and then some – he would have retired months ago. But he was gunning for some personal milestones – his five years as Chief began May 1, 2016; his 58th birthday, also in May – is three days after his twins turn 10 on May 6.

And he wanted to elevate a strong leadership team this year so that when the Board of Aldermen decides who will be the next Fire Chief, they will know who he sees as the right fit for the job ahead.

“I want to go out as chief and set up everything I could over the last few months in anticipation of making a move, like naming Andy Parent Assistant Chief and lining up the next couple of guys I think should lead this department. Ultimately, it’s up to the board, but I really feel we have a strong team in place and I hope they continue to move forward and push out of our traditional roles,” Goonan says. “Once that was settled I felt like I could make a move. It’s good and it’s sad, but I’m happy about the decision,” Goonan says.

May 5, 2016: The City of Manchester announced a groundbreaking “Safe Station” initiative and an expansion of the Granite United Way’s 2-1-1 NH service.

The way it was, May 2016

His first day on the job as Chief five years ago was also the official launch of Safe Station, a program that was developed here in Manchester by Emergency Services Officer Chris Hickey with the blessing of former Mayor Ted Gatsas, and which has been lauded nationally and replicated successfully in cities around the state and the country as a way to make prevention and intervention the focus of battling the human losses of addiction.

During his tenure the emotional weight laid on the shoulders of first-responders also became national news, as post-traumatic stress among firefighters, EMTs and police officers made headlines.

In New Hampshire, the lack of mental health and addiction recovery infrastructure meant our first responders were called into action.

In that way, expanding the scope of what it means to be a first-responder in Manchester will also be part of Goonan’s legacy. He never wavered from the position that his staff would go anywhere they were needed, to do whatever they could do to help. 

Fire Chief Dan Goonan addresses the growing issue of homelessness in Manchester during an Aug. 2019 news conference. Photo/Pat Grossmith

The days of firefighters waiting for a call box signal to attend to a fire are now only part of the job description. Responding to human crises and assisting in putting out other kinds of “fires” that consume the city – considered ground-zero for opioid overdoses at the start of the national addiction epidemic – meant city firefighters stepping up to fill the void in outreach services for the homeless and the mentally ill.

Although Safe Station has always had its detractors and some city leaders still push back on the expansion of community services provided by firefighters, Goonan has no regrets when it comes to revamping the department’s scope.

“When I took over as chief, Chief Burkush was my mentor. I followed him through my entire career. He was a smart, smart guy; you couldn’t find anyone tactically more on the ball,” Goonan says. “Back in the old days when a box used to tap in, they’d ding in the middle of the night, he knew every single box in the city by the sound and numbers, and when something went off he knew exactly which corner it was.”

Goonan says in taking the helm he wanted to move the department into the future.

Fire Chief Dan Goonan, seated among the crowd at Manchester Community College, welcomed President Trump to Central Fire Station in March 2018 prior to this stop to address the opioid crisis in Manchester. File Photo/Carol Robidoux

“We made it an all-crisis all-hazards organization, so whether we’re dealing with COVID, or vaccinations, homelessness, or addiction, we’re going to try to be one of those lead agencies. We’re in the business of helping people. Sure, I’ve gotten in trouble and dusted it up with people over my views on this, but when you’re passionate you do what you think is the right thing, despite the naysayers. And I’m not always right, but I tried my best,” he says.

Goonan, who will continue to serve the town of Auburn as a police sergeant, joined the fire department right out of college. He remembers his first day on the job vividly.

“I was working a night shift, and at the time we started work at 6 p.m. I didn’t realize 6 didn’t mean 6; we were supposed to be there to relieve the previous shift at 5:30. I got there early and sat in the parking lot until 6 so I wouldn’t look too eager, and boy I got hammered by the captain when I finally walked through the door,” Goonan recalls.  

His work resume was thin at that time – he spent a few summers working for city Water Works, and also did a stint at Lechemere’s department store, and for Hickory Farms, cutting cheese ball logs.

“This job has been everything to me. I guess what I’m most proud of is moving the department into the future and out of the traditional roles. In a nutshell, what I’m really proud of is building relationships with so many people along the way,” Goonan says. 

Fire Chief Dan Goonan with his family, daughters Emily, left, Emma, son Emmett, and wife, Denise, during a 2017 event at Weston Elementary School. File Photo/Carol Robidoux

The working relationship between the fire department, the city health department, the mental health center and Families in Transition, particularly in untangling the complicated issue of homelessness, is a strong foundation on which incoming Director of Homeless Initiatives, Schonna Green will build on, he says.

“She’s going to be great. She knows her stuff and has been successful in Florida. Homelessness isn’t going away or the problems that go with it. We have a lot of planning to be done as a city, and I feel good about how we’re positioned going forward,” he says. 

The closest Goonan can come to a regret is that somehow he didn’t do enough.

“At times maybe I was a little too passionate, but that’s me. I feel good about the last five years. But in all honesty, these last 18 months have been terrible. Sometimes I don’t know how we made it through. I wish I could have done more – 2020 was a sad, tragic, difficult year, one that made me really think about my family, and what’s important in life.”

He says he doesn’t have a plan for the future, except to immerse himself in family life.

“My sister Erin said it takes courage to be a firefighter, and courage to retire. I’ve worked with some of these guys for decades and I honestly think of them as family so, yeah, it’s hard to end this chapter. My plan is to take a couple of months off and when I’m ready, I’ll start looking for the next opportunity,” he says.

“I like working with people – that’s why I joined the fire service, to be in that role and it’s hard to get out of that because it’s in me to continue working with people,” Goonan says. “I consider that a strength, and good or bad, that’s what I focused on. In the meantime, my family will keep me busy. You’ll see me back somewhere in some capacity, it’s not in my DNA to stop.”