Interviewer: Michael Nobel Kline
Place of Interview: Concord Free Public Library
Transcriptionist: Carrie N. Kline
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Audio file is in .mp3 format.
Michael Nobel Kline: Okay. It’s the 22nd of September, overcast, but not exactly a dreary day. And we’re here to do one of a series of interviews on land use in the Concord area.
Kenneth Willette: Umm hmm.
MK: Would you start off please and say, “My name is,” and tell us your name?
KW: My name is Kenneth Willette, and I’m the Fire Chief for Concord, Massachusetts.
MK: And your date of birth?
KW: Born on February 12th, 1953. Myself and Abe Lincoln share a great birthday.
MK: Amen. There’s a great American. Perhaps you’d start out. Tell us about your people and where you were raised.
KW: I was raised out in the western part of Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley, born and raised in the City of Chicopee, Massachusetts and lived right outside Westover Air Force Base and remember as a youth, because the natural question so many people ask is, “How did you get interested in the Fire Service?” And I can remember going out to the Air Base for their air shows they would have annually, because the Eighth Air Force was out there during the Vietnam War. So it was a very busy Base, and seeing the fire apparatus and being enamored with it. And then the elementary school I went to had a fire station right in front of it, and after school I would walk over and talk to the fire fighters there. And it happened to be next to the library. And I spent a lot of time in the library as well. So those left quite an impression on me. And I was in college to be a teacher and decided that wasn’t quite working out for me the way I hoped it would and went to work for the state, but was in a position that really wasn’t a career. And I ended up working at Westover Air Base on the crash rescue crew for the airfield for three years. And then I went to the Wilbraham Fire Department in western Massachusetts for--. I was out there for twenty-six years. And then I’ve been in the Town of Concord since April of—November of 2003. But my roots are firmly embedded in western Massachusetts. French Canadian culture. My forefathers came down from Canada to work in the mills, in the paper mills in the Holyoke area. But my life has brought me here to Concord.
MK: And how has that been for you?
KW: Concord, when the position became available and I had to think about, is this something I want to apply for or do I want to finish my career out in western Mass., really was exciting because, just the history. There is so much in the town that I think we take for granted as the historical value and the importance of it. I mean we’re in the library and just looking at these sculptures in the library and the artwork in the library, the authors who came here, who came before us, was one of the first visits I made to a Concord building was the library. When I saw that circle of the busts of all the famous authors and I read the work that had been done. Daniel Chester French had done work in this town. It really excited me. So I’ve taken Concord to be a great opportunity, not only personally and professionally, but for my own growth and to come closer to history. So I couldn’t be happier.
MK: How would you describe Concord to someone who had never seen it or would never be able to see it?
KW: I’ve got two ways of looking at it. One way is as a, someone who doesn’t reside here who might be coming to town wanting to know. And the one thing I find very interesting about Concord is we have two distinct villages if you will. We have West Concord, which is on the other side of the Route 2 Corridor. And then we have Concord Center, which is over by where the library is. But even beyond that we still have some little villages within the town. We have the Conantum District, and we have the Depot District. And within that we have a very attractive downtown area, both in Concord and in West Concord and at the Depot, where if you want to stroll down the street and look at some shops and have a nice meal, look at some great architecture, you can do that. And we then have all of the historical sites. We have the National Park, we have the North Bridge, we have the Old Manse. We have many historic homes right in the area of the Concord Museum. And the people that come from across the world--. On a day like today, you go downtown and you’ll see streams of tourists just walking, going up and down the street. And it adds a vibrance that you won’t find in many towns similarly sized with their own commercial district. But I think the attractiveness to the international tourists that come into town, I find that to be vibrant. It adds an excitement to this downtown area that you don’t see in a lot of other communities. So I think it’s a blessed community in that regard.
MK: Talk a little bit about Concord landscapes as you first saw them and what’s happened in the intervening five years since you’ve been here with some of these places.
KW: The historic properties, in the time that I’ve been here, have always been--. And I think this is a great tribute to the town--. Well identified. And the citizenry and the town governance has made a committed effort to identify those, to maintain those, and to work as part of a larger planning process to ensure that they’re respected. So that even though you may have a historic house here, what takes place next door to it won’t happen in a manner that would degrade the presence of that historic structure. And I think that’s a real compliment to the town. The housing stock in town--. It has been regarded as an upscale residential community, a suburb of Boston, has attracted many young and middle aged professionals. The school system has an excellent reputation. We have excellent private schools: Concord Academy, Middlesex School, Nashoba Brooks. And they attract--. And the Fenn School. They attract great attendance. So I think the community is made up of very professional people. Their homes are very nice. The older homes are meticulously maintained. And in many instances the homeowners have invested to bring their appearance back, typical for the period. And you go inside, you’ll see that they’ve taken care of the property. The grounds are well-maintained. The newer homes, you don’t see an outlandish architectural design. You see something that complements that area. Might be a little upscale in terms of size and interior furnishings, but nonetheless is done with regard for good planning. Our lot sizes aren’t postage stamp lots so that you have to worry about high density. The older neighborhoods have higher density housing, but the new sections don’t. And there’s been a great concern for maintaining that balance between history and what happened in this town before we developed the land, and respecting the rights of homeowners. So I’m struck by that, how much effort is put into maintaining that balance.
MK: So you see the current development then, or expansion, or enrichment, however you want to talk about it, of the present situation as something that’s, as you said, “in balance?”
KW: I would say it’s by and large in balance. We do have--. We have seen an interest in higher density housing and condominium-type units, primarily in multiple story, because that’s where the economic incentive is for the developer. But even when that’s being done--. We have two apartment complexes, condo projects that number probably in the forty to sixty apartment units, and it’s set in a campus of several buildings that are three stories high. But again they worked very hard with the planning folks and the Building Commissioner in town to make it reflective of the neighborhood as best they could. Part of that is because, as I mentioned, we don’t have high density housing by and large. We are a higher end community. The young couples coming into town haven’t been able to afford some of those homes, so this new housing gives them entry level housing close to the rail station. So that’s become attractive. But even then, it’s still being done in that balance.
MK: Sounds like a real design of the future, having living quarters clustered close to transportation centers and that sort of thing.
KW: That’s really becoming--. That mixed use concept is becoming very attractive. We currently have on the books a proposal to put 350 units of high density housing in one area of town that will provide affordable housing. So it gives the town some credits. And it’s a good thing for the town to do, because the town--. As I talk about how well done the houses are and they’re priced, there is a very strong desire in the town to commit to affordable housing, so that people can take advantage of Concord, but also find a home that they can go into. So affordable housing is a big, a very strong push in Concord.
MK: What does all this mean if you’re looking to try to protect the area from fire, natural disasters, whatever comes down the road?
KW: The first two fires, structure fires, I had in town after coming on as Fire Chief, the first one was on Elm Street. It was in a large, two and a half story wood frame home built probably in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Very nice presence on Elm Street. And it was a good size home. It was probably well over twenty-five, 2800 square feet. The homeowners had spent, made a big investment on maintaining and restoring some of the look. And we had a fire that began in the wall by the chimney of the fireplace on the first floor and went all the way up to the attic. Very tough fire to locate and fight. And once you scraped away the, in the rooms, the internal wall, what you uncovered was 1800s construction techniques, which is what we call balloon frame. And that just allows a channel for fire to go in this case from the first floor right up to the attic. And if you don’t treat that aggressively it can create a real problem, and you can burn the building down. But the Concord fire fighters have had enough experience, and they know the parts of town, that they understood that was there. So they were able to react to it. So here we had a building that, from the outside looked to be of 1800s, 1900s vintage, but well-maintained. But when you stripped away, you got into the interior structure; it really was original 1800s construction techniques. That poses a very serious challenge. The second fire I had was up on Monument Farms Road. This was--. And this shows the newer style of construction in Concord. This home was 14,000 square feet. We ran out of hose trying to get to the basement to put the fire out. So from 1800s construction to modern construction that we run out of hose, that’s kind of the extremes of what we deal with. We still have some smaller homes. And we have some historical properties that a fire in that property isn’t just a building, it’s a piece of history. Barrett’s Mill Farm right now on Barrett’s Mill Road, they’re in the process of restoring that. That was long neglected, and now it’s being restored. But it’s in a period of reconstruction where all the structural members are open. But it’s irreplaceable relative to the American, the start of the American Revolution and the Battle at North Bridge. Barrett’s Mill Farm was instrumental in that. A fire in that structure, it’s not just a building, it’s a piece of history. We’re very mindful of that. We try to be very mindful of the value of the property, what took place. Walden and Thoreau tracked through the woods and whatnot, what they did here. And we take it as a mission to protect it.
MK: Umm hmm. Very well spoken.
KW: Thank you.
MK: What are some other really special qualities that Concord has, in terms of its landscapes?
KW: It’s primarily--. I would describe it as primarily flat, but we’re trisected by three rivers. We do have a lot of wetlands. I mean Thoreau wrote about walking along the Assabet and some other rivers. And it’s a great thing from a recreational point of view. We have a lot of recreation activity. One of my other jobs is I serve as the Emergency Management Director, and I’m responsible for working to prepare the community for unforeseen events like floods, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards. Flooding in this town, when we have high water, is always a concern, because so much of the town--. We have three rivers that run through town, numerous streams and lots of wetlands. And it’s a very finely balanced ecosystem. And as the water rises, of course, one of the things the town has done, they have had good zoning, so that the wetlands, the natural recharge area that could take the overflow from the river, hold it as it’s supposed to and then gradually allow it to recede, without getting into people’s basements, they’ve kept that. So we have a good amount of area. But when we reach the point that we get that, we call it “the hundred year flood,” that really major event, we’re going to have a lot of water in town. And it’s something that we work very hard to think about and to plan for. So that’s one of our things. We have all of that great access to waterways for kayaking and canoeing and nature walking. But then we have the risk that in a certain situation it’s going to become a public safety issue for us with flooding. So that’s one of the things that we have. We have some very historic roads that go over toward the North Bridge that are great walking paths. We have a great Town Square right opposite our town house. Again, just a nice feel to it, open space and done in a nice way that you can really walk and enjoy it. So I think that’s one of the great features of the town.
MK: Tell me about the firemen who work with you and risk their lives with you. Some of them probably been around a lot longer than you have.
MK: Who are these people? How do they relate as a group?
KW: The Concord Fire Department was started in 1850. So we have a long history as an organized Fire Department. Even for New England that’s pretty long lineage. And we have one member of our department who is now in his thirty-fifth year of service to the department and the town, whose grandfather was a member of the Fire Department back in the early 1900s into the mid-1930s, 1940. So we have several members of the Department that have a similar lineage. And these folks, to them fire fighting is much more than a profession or a calling. It’s almost like--. I don’t want to say they were ordained into it, but it’s something they hold very dearly in particular this town. So they have a great understanding of the history of town and of the people who came here and how we have evolved as a Fire Department. But by and large the members of the Fire Department are no longer town residents, because the nature of our town, the population is more towards the mid-level manager and professional. And fire fighting is not something that’s really attractive to them. And where we used to have fifty volunteer fire fighters, today we have one. Again, it’s not something that people find fits their lifestyle, their needs, or they can afford the time to volunteer, because of the training requirements we have today. That used to be a great source of full-time fire fighters was the on-call fire fighters. They would do their time there. They were town residents. They would come out, and then they would go into the full-time department. But we don’t have that, so we’re--. Now most of our, if not all of our new hires, are coming from outside of town, and they live some twenty miles or so. So that’s a little bit of a challenge. They may not have as full an understanding of some of the social networks that are set up in town and be as informed as to what’s happening. But in terms of their dedication, I couldn’t ask for a more dedicated group of fire fighters.
It’s funny. We’re meeting today. Just on the 21st of September, two days ago, we had a major fire, a four-alarm fire. Four alarms. That’s fourteen towns had to come help us fight the fire. And we don’t have those routinely. That’s--. Last one we had was over a year ago, and that was at Dee’s Bus Garage on Main Street. And that was not a routine fire. But this one was at the Verrill Farm Stand down on Sudbury Road, the intersection of Sudbury and Wheeler Road. The Verrill Farm has been in Concord since the early 1900s, and the family has had this farm stand for over thirty years there. Excellent. Steve Verrill, very prominent member of our business community as well as our farming community, been great supporters of the town. And unfortunately, due to a problem with a ceiling fan, they had a fire that started and basically destroyed their farm stand. And the fire fighters of the Fire Department were confronted with a very challenging situation. We had about a 3,000 square foot building that was heavily involved in fire and no fire hydrants in close access. So we had to lay over a mile of hose to fire hydrants, to two separate fire hydrants, and to take water out of an irrigation pond and pump it over 1500 feet. Now the fire fighters did that as if they had been doing it every day. They just knew what they had to do, and they did it. And I think that typifies the Concord fire fighter. When confronted with a problem, they’re great problem solvers.
I’ve always said, “If you want to break something, give it to a fire fighter. Or if you want to fix something, give it to a fire fighter, because they’re great problem solvers.” And in this instance, they all had a connection to this building, to this family, because they’d been in Concord for so many years. They’ve been great friends to the Fire Department. They all were talking about what a loss this would be, so to us this wasn’t just a standard fire. They went out of their way. And I think that’s the other trait of a Concord fire fighter is we care. And we do many medical assists where we go into people’s homes and help them. If they fall onto the floor--. Mainly it’s older folks. And we’ll find an eighty-year-old wife trying to take care of a eighty-five-year-old husband, and they’re both very frail and living alone. And they’ll call us to help them. And we do that proudly, and we do it with compassion. And my fire fighters, our fire fighters, have gone into homes, and they have helped people get back to bed. They’ve made a lunch for somebody who’s diabetic and just needed some food. They’ve changed people who have been on the floor and haven’t been able to help themselves, and wash them up, and put them back to where they needed to be, and said, “If you need us, call us.” And in some cases, until we can get--. We have a network. When we find these folks, we work with our Council on Aging to try and bring services into the home. But until we can get that person, the services are properly placed, in a safe and secure environment, we’ll go back there every week and do the same thing every week. And I’ve not once been told that our fire fighters have been anything other than compassionate and caring and professional. And I think that’s what a Concord fighter is.
MK: Amazing. You mentioned that there was multi-generational membership on the part of some families.
KW: Umm hmm.
MK: Which families are those that have people in--?
KW: Two families come to mind. First is the Prentice family. And that is the Fire Captain, with thirty-five years of service, Donnie Prentice, Don Prentice. And it was his grandfather, whose name I think might have been Walter, was one of the volunteers. And the other family that comes to mind is the Powers family. And Marty Powers, who’s my Deputy Emergency Management Director, has now got forty years of volunteer service to the town. And originally he was on the Auxiliary Fire Department. And his dad was very involved in Concord on the Auxiliary Fire Department and as the Emergency Management Director at one time. And as I said, Marty’s been serving the town now for forty years and has been a great help, because he is very much connected to Concord, and he knows the history, and he knows the people. And coming in from my previous career in western Massachusetts, it has been helpful to have these people who’ve got this connection back to the town, because they were able to give me a lot of insight and help me establish the Department to serve the needs of the community.
MK: So how do these guys relate to each other? What’s the group dynamic?
KW: Well the Fire Service is very similar to being in the military. The one thing everybody will like to do inside the fire station, I think, is to complain about the Chief. And in the Army you would complain about the General. But I think that’s the good natured ribbing that goes on, and they relate to one another similar to what you--. Right now with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan you hear about the wounded soldier saying, “I got to take care of my buddy. I’m there for my buddy. I’ve got to get back.” The fire fighters all relate to one another exactly the same way. When they’re called to go into a burning building, they take as their number mission, after looking after the life of the person who’s at risk by the fire, their second obligation is to take care of their partner, and whom they’re working with. And you can see it in the way they talk, the good natured kidding, the camaraderie, and that bond that holds them together. And that bond is that they all face the same threat. They all go into the burning building. They all help people at the same time. And they know that whatever they do, their brother and sister fire fighter will do the same thing. So that’s a really strong bond, and it’s a bond that isn’t easily broken. And I think that’s how they relate. And you can just see it in the way they talk to one another. And after, like this major fire we just had, just this morning, the crew that was on duty for the fire is working today. So, the first time they’d come back to work after the fire. And the first thing they did was sit around the kitchen table, drink coffee, and talk about the fire, and talk about, what did they learn, what did they do. And that’s how we as a profession pass information on from the older generation to the newer generation. We don’t have as many fires anymore, so our skills--. You don’t want the next fire you go out to fight to be the first one you experience. So they--. It’s similar to what we’re doing today, an oral history, where they pass it down from generation to generation around the coffee table.
MK: Well, you had mentioned also natural disasters.
KW: Umm hmm.
MK: Have you seen any of that since you got here?
KW: In Concord the biggest natural disaster--. We’ve had two that come to mind, one that was several years ago, and then the other one was two years ago, some minor flooding. The good news is, Concord is still hearty folks. You know we were started back in the early, the 1600s by folks who came together and said, “We’re going to stake out a new life for ourselves on this patch of land.” And we have that New England spirit in this town where we--. I don’t want to call them Yankees, but we have some very self-reliant and independent folks who have been--. And when I go out and talk to the community and I see a lot folks with experience in the room, I’ll ask them, you know, “How many of you survived the Depression?” And you’ll get a fair amount. And I’ll say, “So what I’m going to tell you is nothing different, because you’ve already lived through some pretty substantial experiences, and you did it by taking care of yourself.” So those folks are pretty easy to motivate to be self-reliant and to prepare themselves for a flood or a blizzard. But some of the newer generation of folks, it’s a little more challenging, because we’ve come so dependent on cable television and lights. And God forbid if the Internet goes down. That preaching--. I use the term “preaching” self-dependence in times of emergency is a little bit of a more challenging proposition for me. But in the blizzards folks have been able to hunker down and take care of themselves pretty well. In the flooding we only had some minor impacts. It certainly was not anything we saw downstream in the Merrimack River Basin down in Lowell and that way. But our community is pretty well prepared for that I think.
MK: Great. So the Fire Company--. What’s happened to fire fighting with funding and support for it since 9-11?
KW: 9-11. You know that was such a breakwater for Americans as a nation. And we began to realize the threat could come to us and we didn’t have to wait to go to it. And it definitely unleashed a whole series of looking internally to say, “What can we do to be prepared?” And one of the challenges for myself and my peers is that the focus became the terrorism. And that was a good focus, because it was a real threat. And it did generate people’s respect for what public safety officials did with what happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the loss of fire fighters and police officers and emergency medical personnel. So we surely appreciated that. It’s very encouraging and it kind of renews your spirit and your commit to the profession you’ve chosen. But it also kind of took resources and attention away from some of the issues that I see as a Fire Chief that still exist. And while we lost a horrific number of Americans on September 11th, we’re still seeing large losses of life due to fires in homes. And we in a nation haven’t really moved in that direction to invest our resources and our commitment to address those in the same way we did after 9-11. I’m hopeful that at some point we may as a nation move back down that road. But I don’t see it right now, and in fact, as budgets are getting tighter and the funding for many of these Homeland Security-type initiatives are drying up, we’re seeing--. Many of those programs are now falling by the wayside, all the investment that was made. And it’s a little discouraging, frankly, to see that, because it had great hope, but there’s no sustainability. And we still have Americans who are dying in their homes from fires, that if we could get everybody to have a smoke alarm in their home to give them early warning, you could get every state to adopt fire-safe cigarette standards, so cigarettes extinguish themselves, rather than continue to burn if you don’t continue to puff on it, and try to get communities to adopt sprinklers in homes to quickly extinguish the fire so residents can get out before it consumes the building, we’d be saving lives.
MK: And this is the part that has kind of lost the center of attention?
KW: I think so. We’ve been doing it on kind of a piecemeal approach in Massachusetts. The State Fire Marshall--. I was the president of the State Fire Chiefs last year, so I was involved in working with the Fire Marshall and the Fire Chiefs to move ahead our public safety agenda and our life saving agenda. Very difficult to move it through the legislature and to secure the funding and the political support. Why? Because it’s not glamorous, and it goes in direct conflict with some of the well-funded lobbyists who are representing the business industry, particularly the banking industry, which writes the mortgages, the construction industry which builds the homes, and to some degree the homeowners themselves, because residential sprinklers require money, and that’s money that people have to redirect from putting into their home to putting into that protection. So that’s a challenge. And it has caused people to not focus on it as much.
MK: Boy, that’s something that the average American doesn’t have any idea about--.
MK: I mean I think it’s assumed that there has been this momentum in the direction of national security and—
MK: That must mean that the emergency people are getting better vehicles and more funding—
MK: And so it’s all moved up a notch. But you’re saying it’s falling away, that whole aspect of it.
KW: It has moved up a notch, but I don’t believe it’s sustainable. And I do see it falling down a notch. As I look at the budgets and what the Bush Administration right now is proposing for some of its budgets, what I see happening at the state level and even at the local level as we face some trying economic times, the reality is it’s going to drop down a notch. And if you ask somebody, “What do you know about the Fire Department, or about your Fire Department in your town?” typically people will say, “Well, they have good trucks. They’re nice guys. And they come when I need them.” But I don’t know if people really understand or have invested the time to learn what’s beyond that, how many fire fighters, how quickly can they get to your home, how new is the equipment. And we kind of are seen as the good old fire fighters, which is okay. But I don’t know that people understand how technically challenging fire fighting has become. It used to be kind of a social club; the volunteer fire fighters was really a social club. And that did last through the fire service, but in Concord it’s a very professional Fire Department. We have high expectations of our people. They’re trained as emergency medical technicians, as fire fighters. They’re trained in hazardous materials, in water rescue, in some confined space procedures. And we protect a prison, two prisons. We have two prisons, a hospital, three nursing homes. We’re adjacent to an airport. We have a major state highway. We have a rail line that comes through town. We have these national--. We have the National Park and all of the historic treasures. So I liken Concord to more of being a small city than being a big town because of the complexity and the makeup. And that would probably be a good way to describe my feel for Concord is, we’re more like a small city than we are a big town. And in New England a city is usually 40,000 people and greater. And everyone expects a city to be more metropolitan, more urban, more of a challenge. But as the Fire Chief, the challenges I manage are more akin to what I see in small cities than what I see in big towns.
MK: Very interesting. How large a force are we talking about?
KW: Right now we have thirty-six fire fighters. We have thirty-six uniform personnel. That is twenty-eight fire fighters, four lieutenants, four captains, and they’re assigned--. It’s broken down into four working groups of nine people each. And the nine person group has a captain and then four fire fighters assigned to Station One, which is Walden Street, Headquarters. And then a lieutenant and two fire fighters assigned to Station Two, which is over in West Concord. And then myself and the Deputy Chief work a day schedule as administrative staff. So we have a total compliment of thirty-eight. And one on-call fire fighter.
KW: It’s a very--. I’ve been in the profession now thirty-five years. And as I look back I can’t believe it has been thirty-five years. But the changes in technology that’s coming into the fire service that--. Our protective clothing utilizes technology that was developed by NASA in designing spacesuits for astronauts, so that if they were exposed to fire--. They had that terrible fire on the launch pad that three astronauts died. So they came out after that with a fiber called Nomax. And that created a whole generation of material that’s used to construct our fire coats, to shield us. It doesn’t make us fire proof, but it insulates us and gives us time to realize there’s a problem, escape from the building before our clothing, our fire coat fails. We have thermal imaging cameras. Seven years ago, eight years ago, when they came out--. We were paying $21,000 a camera, and each frontline truck should have one. Today they’re $8,000. The technology has just made that so affordable. But it’s just--. It’s--. What they do is they literally look through smoke, so that if there’s a person who has collapsed, who is unconscious and can’t come to the fire fighter as we crawl through the building, using the thermal imaging camera we can see if the person’s there and remove them, save them. So it’s just amazing how technology’s being handed off to us.
MK: When we were talking about the camaraderie and sort of the culture of the firemen, I wanted to ask you if that extended over into the families. Is--?
KW: There is a bond between members of the same working group. And it’s not uncommon for them to do family activities together. In the not too distant past there used to be fireman musters, where fire companies would go and would prepare teams. And then the teams would compete against one another. Area fire departments, you’d have four, five, six fire departments bring teams. And they would have a bucket brigade and what we called the Midnight Alarm, which you would run the length of the course and have to put on your fire gear, and get to the end, and charge a hose line, and spray water at a target. So. They would have several of these. And it was a great social and family event. And they’re still common in some parts of the country, but they’ve kind of fallen by the wayside in this area of the country. And I think what we’ve seen happen outside the Fire Department in the greater society is family time is so important, and we have so many two-income families today where both husband and wife are working that when it comes to the weekends and it comes to the time to be with your family, that’s really such a huge priority with folks today that they may not be as apt to get together, because there’s the kids’ sports activities, there’s the school activities, there’s the family activities, that the other social activities kind of don’t rank as high in the list as maybe they once did. And I think that has contributed to a reduction in those types of firemen’s musters and whatnot.
MK: What future challenges still face the Concord Fire Department?
KW: Our future challenges are, like every municipal department I see, is going to be funding, adequate funding. The town has made a very good investment in our department. They’ve been--. Town Meeting has been very supportive of the Fire Department in approving articles that allowed us to purchase equipment. We were able to take advantage of a federal grant and hire four new fire fighters. And the town is supporting --. It’s a declining grant, so as the years pass the town has to fund more and the federal government less. So we’ve been very well supported by the town. But in Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, right now the economy is kind of at a crossroads. And with all of the upheaval on Wall Street, that’s certainly going to trickle down and affect communities. And Concord has made a decision not to seek an override where the community would be able to say--. By law we can only raise our budgets by two and half percent from one year to the next. But if the Town Meeting were to vote to do so, they could raise it more than two and a half percent. But the Selectmen and the Town Manager, for the past two years, have said, “We’re not going to do that, because ultimately it’s the tax payers who have to foot that bill. We want to live within our means.” And we had some extra funding sources that helped balance the budget and made it pretty comfortable for us to maintain levels, services, constant services. The forecast right now is that we’re beginning to see that being ecked (?) (pecked?) (41:44) away at by the impact of the economy right now. Tax revenues are down, home sales are down, building permits are down, and all of those things generate revenue for the town. So I think the biggest challenge is going to be maintaining the funding stream and live within the budget that has been appropriated by Town Meeting.
MK: And how that will be done I guess remains to be seen.
KW: Remains to be seen. Massachusetts and Concord has been through this before. Sometimes we view an event only against our experience of that day, but so many folks can recall the financial difficulties of the ’70s, the gas rationing, the recession of the ’80s, the recession of the ’90s. We always got through those. And we have to remind folks about that, that yeah, we got to tighten our belt, and we may not get 100 percent of what we want, but we’ve gotten through this before. I think that’s the resilience of America, that when we need to, like after 9-11, we can come together in a strong show of unity. We may not like what we have to do, but as a country we’ll do it to get us to the next place, because we know it’s the right thing to do, so. That’s what we’re going to have to do.
MK: Concord is really lucky to have you.
KW: Thank you! It’s awfully kind of you to say that. I really enjoyed working here. I’ve been lucky to be here.
[Recorder is turned off and back on.]
MK: Okay. Just yesterday--?
KW: The question was, “How has being a Fire Chief affected my family life and impacted me in the years?” I remember when I was the Fire Chief out in Wilbraham, it was my birthday celebration. My family was coming to my house. And they walked in the door, and we had time to put the birthday cake on the table and maybe open up a bottle of wine. And my pager went off for a fire in Wilbraham. And I said to my family, “I’ll see you.” And I left them to go and be at this fire for several hours. By the time I got back they had left, had eaten my birthday cake, drank my wine, but they did leave me my gifts. So that I think has typified my thirty-five years in the fire service that when duty called, you left. I can remember, again in Wilbraham, fighting a fire. And in the middle of fighting it, one of the fire fighters says, “Ken, you got to call your house.” “Got to call my house?” And this was before cell phones, so I had to find a phone. I called my wife. And this fire we were at happened in a thunderstorm. It was a torrential thunderstorm. My wife had called because the gutter had plugged and the water, instead of going through the downspout, was overflowing, coming in the window and flooding my kitchen. So by the time I got to call her, maybe twenty minutes had passed. She said, “Don’t worry about it. I fixed it.” I said, “What did you do?” In the rain, she went out, got a ladder, climbed up and took a dead blue jay out of the gutter. So while I was out fighting a fire, my wife was out in a rainstorm cleaning the gutter.
That’s the other thing, I think, that fire fighting has done, is it has required our spouses to be strong people. Every time there’s a problem--. We had a hurricane that was coming through the Wilbraham area. My wife organized kind of a neighborhood shelter in our basement. And we made preparations and invited our neighbors, and she took care of them while I went to work. So that’s the other thing about being the wife of a fire fighter or the husband of a fire fighter is you got to be able to take care of your family, because your husband or your wife is going to be called. And just yesterday, or, Saturday, as I shared with you, I returned from a week’s vacation, landed at Logan Airport, was still on vacation when my pager goes off for the fire at Verrill Farms. And while picking up my car in Revere from the airport parking lot I could see the column of smoke, which is some distance from Concord. And my wife is saying, “Are you going to go to that?” because I’m still on vacation. And I said, “Yeah. I’m going to go on that.” So they dropped me at the fire station. I picked up my car. And I went to the scene, while my wife and the other couple we were traveling with went to eat and conclude our vacation trip. But that’s what being a fire fighter has been I think, is it’s always responding at a moment’s notice. We still carry pagers. When we have a major fire we re-call off duty people. And you do that, because that’s what you do for the community.
MK: What else should we talk about?
KW: I don’t know. I’m trying to think. What will people be interested in when they listen to this?
MK: Well this has all been so interesting.
KW: I think one of the--. Having thirty-five years in the career now, and they say, “What is it that motivates fire fighters?” I think people always want to know, “Why do you put yourself at risk for people you don’t know? Why do you extend yourself?” I think what drives us is our heart. You know we don’t--. And I don’t say that to say we don’t think. We certainly think. But the motivation to be a fire fighter comes from your heart. And I had a chance to talk to a graduating recruit class from the State Fire Academy. And I asked them, I said, “As you complete your fire service training today, you’re graduating, you’re going back to your departments, you’re going to become frontline fire fighters. If you ever need to reflect and to find--. Because there’s going to be tough times. There’s going to be challenges. --What is it that moves you?” I said, “There’s one thing in common.” And I said, “Would you please take a moment and put your hand over your badge or your department emblem.” So everybody took their hand. I said, “Your right hand.” Inevitably your badge is over your heart. I said, “The reason your badge is over your heart is to remind you that that is the strength of a fire fighter. It’s our heart. It’s our love of life I guess, our desire to serve. And that’s what gets us through.” So when people say, “What is it that motivates you?” I really think it’s not that people are thrill seekers. It’s not that they have a wish to put themselves in harm to see if they can escape it. I really think it’s because they have a very strong desire to serve their fellow American, and protect them, and defend them against the threats that are out there. And that comes from the heart. It doesn’t come from the brain. I really think it comes from the heart. And I think that’s what motivates us, and I think that’s what people recognized after 9-11 when they saw that those 343 fire fighters, even when they knew--. They knew, going up that building’s stairs, they knew the chance of collapse was high. They knew the chance of survival was low. They never questioned it. Never. Not one of them. And we have all kinds of training to help us look at the building and make a decision, but I know every Concord fire fighter would’ve done exactly the same thing. They would’ve done exactly the same thing. If that’s what it took to save people, they would’ve done it.
MK: Well, as you also pointed out, it isn’t just fighting fires. It’s making coffee for the old man down the street. You know, it’s public service.
KW: You know, we had a gentleman in town for several years. Very unfortunate situation, a very brilliant man. He was a professor. And he was stricken with, I think it was multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a very disabling disease. And as he got older, his condition became more and more debilitating. And the family dynamics were such that when he needed assistance, very often he would call for us. And we would go, and even though his family was present, we would give the assistance that was needed. And we just did it. I mean we became known on a first name--. He knew all of our guys on a first name basis. We knew him on a first name basis. And we really felt bad for him, not only because of his condition, but unfortunately his family circumstances weren’t very supportive. So we tried to assist as best we could. I can’t tell you how many times we responded to that gentleman’s home. If it was twenty times in a year--. It had to be at least twenty times in a year. He left this town and moved to a neighboring town. Within his first week that fire department said, “Don’t call us for these kinds of duties. We don’t do that.” And I’m not here to judge what another fire department can and can’t do, but I can judge what the Concord Fire Department will do. And I told my troops when I heard that, I said, “That’s what sets us apart. We care for our people, and we take care of our people the best we can.” And that’s really something that people in Concord, I hope, will appreciate. It does set us apart from many other fire departments, purely because--. And that comes from the fire fighters. That’s not me ordering it. That comes from the fire fighters. They--. We had a gentleman. He was roofing his house. He fell off the roof. We had to take him to the hospital. It was going to rain. My guys went back, our guys, our Department went back. They put up a ladder. They put a tarp over the unfinished part of the roof, so that if it rained, it wouldn’t go into the house and do any damage. They didn’t have to do that. They did that on their own. When we do a medical call, if the family is really distraught, we’ll drive the wife to the hospital in her car, so that she’ll have her car there, and we know she’ll get there. We spend a lot of time telling the family what the medical situation is, getting the information, and comforting them at the same time we tend to the medical needs of their family member, because that’s so important. And, again, that’s what sets us apart.
MK: So at the downtown central Fire Department there—
KW: Umm hmm.
MK: You have emergency vehicles as well?
KW: Yeah. Well at the headquarters station right now we have fire engines. One is a frontline engine. One is a reserve. And the third is a four-wheel drive fire engine, so that we use it in snow storms and also if we have to go off-road, because we have so many wooded areas. Then we have a primary ambulance and a reserve ambulance. And we have a ladder truck. We do have several trailers that have specialty equipment. We have a mass decontamination unit, because we have a hospital. So if we had--. This is one of the projects that came out of 9-11. If somebody were to use a dirty bomb, and they needed to be decontaminated, this trailer has a system we can set up to flush the contamination out of people’s bodies before they get seen in the emergency room, so we don’t contaminate the emergency room and have to shut the hospital down. So we have that. We have an environmental spill clean up trailer. We have a trailer with technical rescue equipment.
MK: Inflatable boat?
KW: We have--. We do have a boat. In--. At Station Two we have a sixteen-foot flat bottom boat donated to us by a member of the community after we rescued her dog from the river. We needed a new boat. She bought us one, which was very nice. And we just recently, through a donation of Middlesex School, Police and Fire Department got a utility vehicle. It’s kind of like a big ATV. It has four wheels and a steering wheel, and in the back is a patient bed, so if we have to go into the woods for a person who was injured, we can transport them out and not have to carry them. And that’s a very good piece of equipment, and Police and Fire Department share it. So if the Police need it for an investigation it’s available. So, yeah, we’ve got some very--. Again, the community has supported us very well. And at Station Two we have a brush truck, a small four-wheel drive vehicle to go into the woods for fires. And we have our frontline engine, engine four, and we have a reserve engine.
MK: Well, I’m going to let you get back to the Fire Department.
KW: Well thank you. I’ve enjoyed this. I think this is really neat that the Library is doing this to pass this on, because, as I said, in the fire service, sitting around the coffee table talking is how we pass lessons on. And it’s the way you can share with a generation what’s happening. And I think it’s great to pass this on to Concordians in the future and to other folks to learn about the town and where we are. And I know in--. What is it they used to say? There would be major changes in the technology every hundred years? Then every fifty years. And now they’re saying it’s changing every five years. So I can’t imagine what this Fire Department’s going to look like in five years.
MK: Who would have thought any of this could happen?
KW: That’s for sure. That’s for sure.
MK: Well, thank you again.
KW: All right, thank you, Michael.