An interesting conversation with Brent MacAloney, retiring Westminster Fire Chief

Brent MacAloney, a member of the Westminster Fire Department for 46 years and our Fire Chief for the last 15 years, is retiring on January 3. William “Bill” MacAloney, Brent’s father, also a Fire Chief in Westminster, retired in 1989, so in some ways this retirement marks the end of an era for Westminster and the Fire Department— but in reality we are “mid-era”. The previous era ended fifteen years ago, when Brent became Fire Chief, and we’re in the midst of the new era now. Over the last fifteen years, the fire department has probably seen more changes than there were in the prior 250 years. These changes, and this new era, will continue long after Brent’s retirement.

The Fire Department is much like the Police Department, and these two departments work closely together. Often times in this story I’ll refer to the Fire Department, but that doesn’t mean the police weren’t involved. They are both “public safety”, and these departments, traditionally strongly supported by Westminster voters, are one of the major forces making and keeping Westminster the type of town it is today—low crime, responsive local government, good schools, and higher property values than most surrounding communities. There is a lot to be thankful for, but nevertheless you also hear a lot of grousing—how come we have a fire truck with a ladder that extends 7 stories? Not too many skyscrapers in Westminster. Why is the department so much bigger now? Why are the costs up so much? Brent and I talked for over an hour in his office. I envisioned just reminiscing about his 46 years in the department, and we did do that to some degree, but there was also a lot of talk about the department itself, and how it’s changed and improved, and you could see in Brent’s eyes how satisfied he is with some of the things he’s accomplished, particularly the ambulance service.

I thought I’d begin by relating a story that epitomizes how far the department has come, and how it is viewed by Westminster residents, pro and con. This story involves one of the more colorful and outspoken people in town, Eric White, known by most people as “Whitey”. Whitey is quite the character, and one thing he’s never been known for is being shy about his opinions. We’ve always been friends, and I remember him from when he coached Max, my middle son, in baseball. This was back in 1998. These 9 year olds actually won the Jimmy Fund tournament, a pretty rare feat for Westminster. For about the next five years Whitey freely dispensed his opinion on the victories leading up to it as well as the grand finale—to hear him tell it, it was the greatest sports event in Westminster history, and perhaps for all of Massachusetts since the Revolution. Same went for soccer—Whitey brought an incredible energy level to his coaching, and it was infectious. The kids responded by also really caring about winning and giving their “all”, and they generally both had fun and won.
Whitey has strong opinions about local government too, and the Fire department in particular. A few years ago you could hear him say that it cost too much, it was overstaffed, and what the hell did we need all this new equipment for? Taxes are too high, and so on. He expressed these opinions just as strongly as he did everything else. You were just asking for an earful if you sat anywhere near him at Town Meeting or went to breakfast at what used to be O’Toole’s. However, that all changed about five years ago. He’ll still give his opinion, but it’s changed somewhat, although I doubt he now thinks taxes are great.

One day Whitey was at home and started feeling pain in his chest. Of course, according to Whitey, it was nothing, just indigestion, but it didn’t get better, and with the urging of one of his sons, they called 911. Our Fire Department’s ambulance came immediately, and with sirens blaring was taking him to the hospital, but they didn’t get far before there was trouble. On Main Street Whitey ‘flat lined’-- he was technically dead from a heart attack. Our ambulance EMT’s and a police officer (Jason Tamulen) and firefighter (Captain Kevin Nivala) revived him, raced him to Worcester after a quick stop at Leominster, and he has since recovered nicely. In fact, he now looks fitter today than he did five years ago. The doctors told Whitey that he owed his life to the fast response of Westminster’s ambulance, and that our ambulance service had an EMT certified staff, and he knew it. Ever since then he’s been a great advocate for the Fire Department. He even came down to the station to thank them. It’s these kind of events that gave Brent MacAloney the most satisfaction from his career—not so much that Whitey had a change of heart after his heart attack, but that the Fire Department has been able to save him and many others, from similar situations, thanks mainly to our fire department starting the ambulance service on his watch

Just to be clear, Brent was fast to point out that Woods Ambulance is also very professional, and that he holds them in the highest regard. Woods Ambulance and our ambulance service partner with each other,  providing backup services when the other gets busy. The difference is in response time, because Woods is from Gardner while our ambulance is already here, ready to go in the center of town. The average response time before our fire department had an ambulance service was about 12 minutes. Now it’s 4 minutes. Those 8 minutes are absolutely critical when someone is dying, so it is no exaggeration to say that there are more than a few people in Westminster alive today only because Brent, the Fire Department, the Police Department, and our town government and officials supported starting this ambulance service. Our ambulance service not only saves lives, but it doesn’t cost any extra either. It’s self supporting because Westminster charges for the ambulance service just like all other ambulance services do, and in almost all cases insurance companies pick up the tab. I can’t think of anything else in town, or at the state or federal level, that provides anywhere near the benefit, yet costs the taxpayers nothing.

Now a little history……when Brent became Fire Chief, it was a completely different department. His father, Westminster’s first full time Fire Chief, retired in 1989. Before him, Bud Young was the last part time Chief. After the first Chief MacAloney there were two other Chiefs, one from 1990 to 1997, and then a short lived tenure from 1997 to 1998. Brent became Westminster’s full time Chief in July 1998, leaving behind Digital Equipment, recently purchased by Compaq, where he’d been a project manager. I asked Brent how he’d been with the Fire Department for 46 years if he’d been at Digital before 1999, and it turns out he’d been a “paid on call” firefighter, also working  eight years as the dispatcher before that position moved over to the Police Department during the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

A fire damaged Corvette on Town Farm Road

When he first started, in 1967, It was a different department. It was much less professionally run, with good reason—there was no formal firefighting training and  everyone in the department was “paid on call”, meaning that although they were not strictly volunteers (they were paid for their services), they were “on call”, meaning that responding to a fire required calling (AKA rounding up) firefighters. As might be expected, the response times weren’t so good back then, although that is not at all to slight the on “call people” serving then. It’s just that there wasn’t anyone already on duty. In 1998 when Brent became Chief, the FD was only staffed with 2 full-time firefighter/EMTs during regular working hours. If you were misfortunate enough to have a fire on a weekend or evening, you wouldn’t have any luck calling the Fire Department directly as there was no one around to talk to. By the early 1990s the Town had to add two full-time firefighter/EMTs because of the lack of on-call firefighters available to respond to calls.

I asked Brent at a later point in the conversation what changes he’d seen in the town, and the main thing he pointed out was the aging out of the men who fought in WWII. These men came back from the war and were ready to do whatever they could to help out their country and their home towns, and that included this semi-volunteering to be on call firefighters. In those earlier days there were plenty of volunteers, but in today’s world it’s hard to get on call firefighters, even though it’s the route to a job in the Fire Department. To be an on call firefighter requires attending a 12 week class at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, and then the starting pay, at about $10 an hour, isn’t tremendous. With experience and rank it can get up closer to $20 an hour, but it’s not an easy or safe job and there are no benefits. Just imagine being on call, and having to drop what you are doing to respond to a fire. What about if you are at work? Have visitors over? Today that sort of job is tough to fill because our society really doesn’t accommodate it.

There’s also of course the expanding population to deal with, too. Westminster has grown considerably over the years, plus housing values have risen dramatically, which also demands a more professional and ready staff. Westminster’s population has also spread out considerably over the years, with more homes in traditionally rural parts of town and thus farther away.  This dispersion of population makes “on duty staff” at the station necessary to provide effective response times.  Our constantly staffed fire department, if you live close enough to the fire hydrant system, actually reduces fire insurance costs.

Another change Brent noted was that back when he took over the department, it was not particularly up to date, to put it generously. For instance, the department itself didn’t have appropriate fire alarms and sprinklers—the sprinkler system in the fire department wasn’t up to code, and the fire department was requiring testing for commercial buildings that they weren’t enforcing on themselves.

So, a number of issues--growth in the town, a declining base of “on call” firefighters, and aging vehicles and facilities, had combined to create an environment that required major upgrading. That’s basically what Brent set about doing during his tenure, as well as later adding the ambulance service. The department is now staffed 24 hours a day, every day, with two people. They do this with 6 full time firefighters and 2 ‘virtual’ firefighters. These virtual firefighters are comprised of numerous part-time on call personnel, who are scheduled to man the department on weekends to supplement the full timers. Both the full time and part time firefighters are town employees, a situation common in New England.

I’d point out here that the paid on call firefighter position is a good way to get into the department as a full time employee. Brent noted that they try to hire from this pool when they have openings.

There were two things that Brent was passionate about this day—the fact that Westminster had voted to retain the job he is vacating as a ‘strong chief’, and the ambulance service.
Regarding the strong chief vs. weak chief—the Selectmen (by 2-1) and the Advisory Board (unanimous) were strongly in favor of changing the job description for the next Fire Chief to be what’s called a ‘weak chief’. The Fire Department and many Fire Chiefs from other towns attended the last town meeting in support of keeping our chief as a ‘strong chief’. The language is unfortunate here, particularly for anyone hoping to change the law (who wants a ‘weak’ anything, leave alone a fire chief), but the choice to the voters was whether to have the Fire Chief report to the Board of Selectmen, or remain independent, running his own department as he sees fit. The voters strong endorsed keeping the “Strong Chief” job description, for two main reasons—it makes it easier to recruit the next chief, and it allows the Fire Department to be free of political influence. They still have to stay within budget, but how they do that is up to the chief.

How Westminster got an ambulance service: The ambulance service is something that had been considered for some time, but Westminster had never been able to afford. Then one day a Westminster resident (John Keena from Church Street) mentioned that he heard on his ham radio that a town in central NY, called Grahamsville, had an ambulance they were looking to donate to a fire department interested in getting into the ambulance service business. After a little due diligence and approval from town officials, a few members of the Fire Department went up and drove it back. Some refurbishing was done, paid for with donations, and Westminster had its first ambulance. And this ambulance was special--it was the oldest in service ambulance in all of Massachusetts, but it did its job. This ambulance is still in service, as far as Brent knows. After Westminster, it made its way to Fitchburg, and after that, to Afghanistan, where it is probably still being used.

In 2007 Massachusetts gave Westminster permission to have “paramedic” service, meaning that our ambulance service could do anything to save a life that any other ambulance services can do. That’s what saved Whitey’s life. Before that we’d have had to call Woods to meet our ambulance somewhere, while now we can go directly to whatever hospital is appropriate, which is often Worcester in emergency situations.

On the very first day that we had certification to perform paramedic services on our ambulance, a call came in that a lady on South Ashburnham Road had stopped breathing. Before this certification all our fire department could have done was chest compressions, but now our EMTs were able to get there fast and insert a tube down her throat, saving her life.
In Whitey’s case, if Westminster hadn’t had certified EMTs on board, he might not have made it. They had to take him directly to Worcester, and ‘shock him and shock him’ to keep his heart beating. The Police and Fire Department drove him right to Worcester, where the doctor told him he was lucky to be alive.

These sorts of cases aren’t uncommon. Brent related the story of a person on Narrows Road who had a heart attack. In this case Brent drove the ambulance while the EMTs worked on the patient. There was the recent case of a head-on collision on Rte 140, in the curvy part near the ski area. Again, the police and fire department were on the scene, and multiple lives were saved.

There is really no question about it. Brent feels his major contribution has been starting the ambulance service, and it’s hard to disagree with him after hearing the stories.

So what’s Brent going to do next? He isn’t one to sit around. When I met with him he was cleaning out his office. That has to be a bittersweet time—there were mementos and memories everywhere. On the other hand, it’s probably been a long haul. Brent’s taking off in an RV, traveling across the country. He wants to see his Marine son arrive in port in San Diego, and maybe his wife Denise will meet him out there (but if so, she’s flying). Whatever the case, Brent is sure to be busy doing something.Thanks Brent, for your many years of service.

And before I forget, the reason we have a seven story ladder truck is all about firefighter safety.  With low manpower the ladder truck offers the most efficient way to get the job done. The size of 95’ is all about reach.  When you park in a driveway or a street and need to extend the ladder to the house, much of the ladder is used up covering the distance to the house, before you start your work fighting the fire. In fact our ladder truck, with its long ladder, still can’t reach the top of the Town Hall copula, when you count distance and height.  Just the fact of having a ladder truck also has a positive impact on (reduces) all our fire insurance rates in town.