A few things struck me about last week’s Manchester Fire Department recognition ceremony. I think it’s something we can all relate to — how to balance change and the tasks at hand while recognizing and honoring the traditions that provide a sense of comfort and stability.
Such ceremonies are usually contained at Central Station inside the chief’s office. Sealed with a firm handshake and sometimes a new badge, promotions, retirements, and new-recruit welcomes are low-key by nature. Any words of wisdom shared by Fire Department brass will hit the intended target, like preaching to the choir.
This was the first invitation I’ve had to attend, and I’m glad I went. It gave me food for thought, which I’m laying out here like an invitational buffet of the mind.
Chief Dan Goonan said the change in venue was due to the number of firefighters up for recognition, including five new hires, one retirement and nine promotions. Multiplied by extended family and friends, Goonan was right. I guesstimated 175-200 people filled the auditorium to standing-room-only at the Currier Museum of Art, maybe more. He also said that such moments are important in the lives of those who serve the city, and working with the Currier, a century-old fixture of culture in our city, to create a warm and welcoming place to celebrate seemed like a good idea.
Change and tradition.
His words of wisdom, about the evolutionary nature of fire service in Manchester and beyond, were well received by those in attendance.
“This is not your father’s or grandfather’s fire department, I say that often. We no longer just fight fires. Our mission at Manchester Fire Department has evolved into so much more — we are the all-hazards emergency department,” Goonan said.
He’s right. Firefighters are first-responders to all kinds of rescues, Haz-Mat calls, mass-casualty situations, the center of emergency management and community risk reduction, severe weather responses, and basically the backbone and central nervous system of the city’s emergency communication system.
And then there is Safe Station, an entry point for those seeking an escape hatch from addiction — or other personal crises — through any firehouse door. A quick evaluation by a live human being, without judgment, to determine what happens next takes about nine minutes before a “warm hand-off” to a helping agency, according to Goonan. It’s a system that grew out of a sharp rise in overdose deaths. First responders thought there might be a way to reach people — a way to save lives — before they landed in the morgue.
Now there are firehouses all over the United States interested in launching their own versions of Safe Station, because the evolution of fire service is not unique to Manchester.
Goonan alluded to Safe Station during his brief comments. He talked about traditional fire service, and what is expected now of new recruits.
“Traditions hold strong in fire service — many argue they hinder our progress and should be abandoned in favor of a culture that embraces only change. But I believe that traditions and change can co-exist, and am confident our new members and newly-promoted officers know that change is vital to the service; but also realize that some of those traditions, especially those of endearing values, are a fundamental part of who we are as firefighters. While we are no longer your traditional fire service, the men and women I’m swearing in today will help us embrace those changes that will help us provide better, more efficient services while increasing safety to our public and ourselves,” Goonan said.
He talked about public trust and accountability around firefighters, a relationship that is like no other between the community and its first responders.
And he’s right. Cops are focused on the bad guys. Community policing aside, they are law enforcers. We regard them differently than firefighters. If we have an interaction with them, it’s either because we’ve done something wrong, or we’re in the middle of something bad. That’s just the way it is. Firefighters spend shifts living communally, cooking dinner for one another, serving up tacos for the annual Taco Tour, and passing the boot to raise money for kids in need during parades. And while they’re the first ones to show up when your house is on fire or your grandmother falls down and can’t get up, they’re also the first to respond when your cat is stuck in a tree, or when your son overdoses.
Tradition and change.
“This is a tremendous responsibility and one rarely afforded to anyone. It’s a wonder that society holds us to a higher standard of conduct, and why it’s so important to uphold that standard. Remember every time you put on a badge, remember the trust it represents and the higher code of conduct we uphold,” Goonan said.
Among those honored:
- Assistant Fire Chief Richard McGahey recently retired after 30 years of service. He got interested in fire fighting back in the day at a career day at Memorial High School. He’s rose in the ranks, from Captain of Station 7 and Assistant Chief in 2016, to retiring as assistant chief.
- Brendan Burns was promoted from District Fire Chief to Assistant Fire Chief. After 23 years of service, Burns now serves as the city’s Assistant Director of Emergency Management and has received lots of other degrees and certifications, including a master’s in leadership from Granite State College.
- District Chief David Patten was promoted from captain, having served 32 years as a firefighter. He also got an early start, at age 14, as a fire explorer in Concord.
- Matthew Lamothe was promoted from lieutenant to captain, with 18 years serving Manchester after spending a couple of years as a call firefighter for Bedford Fire Department. He is a staff instructor for the NH Fire Academy.
Six firefighters were promoted to lieutenant:
- Christopher Grover has more than 15 years of service and has worked for other agencies, but has spent the bulk of his career with Station 7
- David Lang previously served as a volunteer firefighter in Litchfield and has spent most of his 15 years of service with Station 7 and Station 5.
- Joseph Keller was a volunteer firefighter for Winnisquam for two years and advised Hudson’s fire explorers. With more than 15 years of service as a firefighter, Keller has spent more of his career at Station 10.
- Ryan Simmons has been a firefighter for more than 17 years and has earned his associate’s degree in fire science at the NH Fire Academy. He has spent most of his career at headquarters and Station 7.
The final two new lieutenants represent some of that tradition Goonan spoke about during his remarks.
- Scott Brassard is a third-generation firefighter who has spent most of his career working at Station 5. His father, retired Capt. Norm Brassard, did the honors of pinning his son’s badge. Scott has been in fire service for more than 11 years.
- Chad Gamache was flanked by his father, District Chief Mike Gamache, and his grandfather, retired District Chief Norm Gamache. After the ceremony Norm Gamache, who serves as Ward 11 Alderman, let me know about how deep fire service goes with the Gamache clan. His grandson is fourth-generation — Chad’s great-grandfather, Napolean Gamache, served 30 years, and his father Mike, still active, has been a firefighter for 33 years. “My brother Bobby served for 30 years and my brother Richard served for 30,” said Norm. Chad has been a firefighter for nearly a decade, and works from Central Station.
When it was time to swear in the five new recruits — Jeffrey Matthews, Daniel Connell, Mason Murphy, Craig Cartier and Morgan Brennan, I was expecting confetti and hoopla around the fact that for the first time in 20 years Manchester was swearing-in a female firefighter.
Brennan was on a waitlist for a year in Manchester, biding her time serving with Pelham Fire Department and Chichester fire and rescue. She is our city’s second female firefighter, ever. The first, Betsi DeVries, retired in 1999.
After the ceremony, I got to speak briefly with Morgan. She told me that she always had a feeling that she should be a firefighter, but didn’t immediately follow her heart. Instead, she took a more traditional path through college earning a bachelor’s in accounting from Southern New Hampshire University and then got a job crunching numbers.
She hated it.
Making the decision to attend the fire academy was the right path for her, and she says she couldn’t be happier to be working at the state’s largest, busiest and most challenging fire station.
“It’s the best,” she said.
Naturally, it got me thinking about the number of female firefighters in New Hampshire, and so I reached out to Deb Pendergast, Director of NH’s Fire Standards, Training and Emergency Medical Services in Concord for some data.
- Of NH’s 6,500 firefighters, 23-24 percent are full time. The rest serve on-call, part-time or per diem.
- The numbers for females in volunteer and on-call departments are slightly higher at about 7 percent, whereas the number of females in career departments falls to about 5 or 5.5 percent of most fire department rosters.
- The percent of female firefighters in New Hampshire is below the national average, but so is most of New England. States like Florida and California have up to 12 percent female crewmembers; Madison Wisconsin at about 15 percent is one of the higher statistics.
- The number of females in Supervisory or Chief Officer roles in NH is quite low at about 1-2 percent.
“The percent in New Hampshire has risen a bit over the last 10 years which is good news, but we are not where we need to be,” Pendergast said. “The NH Academy has recently held CPAT orientation (the state agility test) specifically for females as well as a presentation from females currently in the fire service for young women considering this as a career or volunteer opportunity. These two sessions were quite successful.”
“I was so pleased to see that Manchester hired Morgan,” Pendergast said.
“It’s been far too long,” DeVries said. “It’s a hire that is overdue. I haven’t met Morgan but I’ve heard of her reputation, which is superb. I have a feeling she will do great things for Manchester. She comes previously trained from another department so she knows the ropes already. I didn’t know a fire hydrant from a telephone pole when I started.”
Of course, she did know the difference but the analogy was meant to spell out just how green DeVries was, a testament also to how far fire training has come in 20 years. She had no family members who served. It was a career path that evolved after working on an ambulance crew in Manchester. It was the mid-1980s and fire departments were actively looking to add more female firefighters to their rosters.
“It was the best decision I could have made. It really fit me well,” DeVries said. Until a few years ago, DeVries was working with fire academy recruits and was aware that Manchester is lagging behind other cities when it comes to females in fire and emergency service. She hopes Manchester will continue to recruit female firefighters. And so does Goonan whose wife, Denise, happens to be a former fire captain from Tuscon, AZ, where she served for 13 years. She was the first female firefighter in that department.
“I think Morgan is going to lead the way to more female firefighters at Manchester Fire Department,” Goonan said.
Tradition and change.
DeVries says by choosing Manchester it means Morgan wants to work hard.
“I talked to different women going through testing in Laconia and found they could go to other stations, work the same hours and make sometimes substantially more than they would make in Manchester. It’s unfortunate because it’s a firefighter’s city. If you’re on the job to fight fires and be active, to see everything you can see, you want to be in Manchester — just like if you’re in New York, you want to be with FDNY. It’s added status that she’s here in Manchester instead of a sleepy town.”
One more thing about the ceremony worth mentioning. Earlier that day Goonan announced that for the first time in 10 years two priests were given badges and sworn in as fire department chaplains: Father Jason Jalbert and Bishop Peter Libasci.
Goonan said it’s something that’s been in the works with Bishop Libasci, who has a firefighting background in his family. But it really started after the 2016 fatal fire on Wilson Street. He called on Bishop Libasci to be there for families — and firefighters — struggling with the loss.
“We haven’t had it for a long time, but traditionally it’s something that’s been a part of fire service especially in times of tragedy,” Goonan said.
And these days, it can serve as an added resource through the fire department’s Employee Assistance Program as first-responders are experiencing more post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues and even suicidal thoughts based on the evolutionary demands of the job.
Change and tradition, for Manchester Fire Department, continue to go hand-in-hand.
Carol Robidoux is publisher of Manchester Ink Link. She can be reached at email@example.com