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Compassion, coordination and competence ... not just fire fighting
COMFORT — Norway Chief Dennis Yates tries to provide comfort along with the devastating news of the death of a family's pet.
OXFORD HILLS — "If you're not scared, you're not going to do the job well."
So said Scott Hunter, chief, Oxford Fire Department. "If you're not scared to some degree, you will miss something important."
In spite of more than a thousand hours of training and experience, Hunter, Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates and Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost all agree ... when entering a strange building that is fully involved, full of blinding smoke, with no idea what awaits you inside, fear is healthy and may just save your life.
Of the three, Hunter is the only one who actively fights fires these days. He became an EMT and junior firefighter at the age of 15 and has been with Oxford for 34 years.
After a collective 87 years fighting fires, Yates and Frost tend to run the scenes instead of fighting the fire.
Hunter, who is also employed full-time as Battalion Chief for the Auburn Fire Department, working 24-hour shifts every four days, does fight fires in the Oxford Hills, especially when responding under a mutual aid agreement to a Norway or Paris fire.
All three, however, have great respect for each other and for the fires they fight.
Yates began his career literally in a trial by fire. "I joined on a Monday and was in a burning building that Wednesday ... without any training," he said.
As chiefs, all three have far more responsibility than just running a fire scene. They need to make sure their firefighters are fully trained and have periodic refresher courses. They have to make sure they hire the right people.
"I ask them why they want to become a firefighter," Hunter explained. "And how they answer tells me a lot."
Hunter said he goes on to make sure prospective firefighters understand how difficult it is on families.
"Not only do you get called out for fires," he said, "but there's hours of training, meetings, and so on. It is a big commitment and a lot of time away from family."
Hunter comes from a family dedicated to serving others. His uncle was a former chief in Norway and his father was in law enforcement. "My grandparents raised their kids to always help others."
Yates, his wife Chris and his son Tim are all firefighters. Tim has written a number of grants securing funds for equipment and training for NFD.
Frost shares the public service ethic with his wife who is a paramedic with PACE. "In fact," he said, "we met in the back of an ambulance at a fire scene."
Frost said he enjoys working with people and prior to retiring, was a purchasing agent for Wilner Wood Products for 22 years and then with Bancroft Contracting as its safety coordinator for 14 years.
Yates is also trained in search and rescue, serves on the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) which rescues firefighters in distress, is a certified scuba diver, amongst other things.
Frost, too, dives and is trained in HazMat (hazardous materials) and Bureau of Labor Standards which enables him to make fighting fires safer for his members. Then there's all the paper work. And research.
"Keeping up with codes, managing people," said Frost, "all takes a lot of hours." Frost is also active in trying to get rental housing up to code and safe for renters in Paris. In fact, he took the initiative to let U.S. Senator Susan Collins know about the condition of Section 8 housing in the area and earned himself a citation for alerting Collins to the issue and helping to prompt a federal probe.
Hunter is also trained for water rescue. All three are safety watchdogs for the public and their firefighters and must be up to date on codes and safety standards.
Both Paris and Oxford chiefs have mobile command vehicles which can run three different entities – fire, police, rescue – out of the back of the vehicle. These are especially necessary for major incidents where response of multiple agencies needs to be coordinated.
Duty and danger
The three chiefs share the creed that "you do the best that you can do." It is a necessary mantra in order to get through the tragedies each have seen. They share a collective memory of the worst tragedies, especially those where children are the victims.
"You feel so heartbroken," said Yates. "To me they are all bad."
"We get to see the worst," said Hunter, explaining that when those worst times come, the entire department undergoes a debriefing. The state has trained debriefing teams who come and meet with the firefighters and rescue personnel involved.
"You realize life can be short so you go on and do your job and help the ones you can."
None of the departments have lost a crew member under the watch of Yates, Frost or Hunter, although there have been some close calls.
Frost's biggest fire, he says, was the Paris Manufacturing fire ... a warehouse fire that lasted four days. "There were 50 departments involved," said Frost, who noted that the firefighters worked in shifts.
Hunter chuckled remembering one fire when he had been with the department for about five years.
"We were in an apartment building on Mechanic Falls Road," he said, "doing a search for someone and I took the 'express elevator down' (A euphemism for walking blindly and finding the floor had burned away in front of you...)."
Yates said he has only been really scared once that he recalls and it was in a forest fire. "We got into the forest and it was a crown fire," he said, explaining that a crown fire is when the tops of the trees are burning over your head.
Frost recalled a fire at the Hill Farm on High Street. "It came in as a chimney fire," he said, "but it turned into a structure fire. There were 25 to 30 mph winds and we were outside the hydrant district.
"We knocked it down two times and ran out of water. The attached barn was superheated and there was a sudden 'bang' and the barn went. We almost lost a truck that day."
Last year, there was one week where all three departments had a major structure fire every day for five days – four consecutive days, and again on the sixth.
Yates thinks the ability to go out day after day like that is attributable to adrenaline.
As fire chiefs and, often, in charge of fire scenes, it often falls on them to deal with the victims of tragedy, be it the loss of a home or family members.
"We are not trained to deal with fire victims," said Yates. "The Red Cross usually is called in."
But at the scene with victims watching their home burn, it is the fire chief who is first in line. And sometimes the victim is a friend or neighbor.
"I try to put myself in their shoes," said Frost. "I know how I would like to be treated ... we show a lot of compassion."
They have all been seen at a fire scene comforting a victim.
In addition to fires, the department also responds to crashes which can sometimes be more devastating.
Although the police are usually the one doing notification to families of crash victims, the firefighters and rescue personnel are on the scene and may well know those involved.
"Your worst fear," said Frost, "is to come to an accident scene and have it be a family member."
Such was the case recently when the Deputy Fire Chief of Paris, Willie Buffington, arrived at the scene of a car-school bus crash to discover the driver of the car was his grandson.
The three chiefs are responsible for protecting a population of 16,000 to 17,000 residents and 120-150 square miles. They must do this, for the most part, without a dedicated water supply as there are hydrants only in the "Main Street" area of each town.
Sometimes a residence may be up an unplowed road or drive. Often, directions given to dispatch are sketchy.
And then there are the people who do not pull over for lights and sirens, slowing response time. Or those who refuse to obey fire police and drive over hoses (a $500 fine). And those who yell and scream at fire police because they have to detour.
And, of course, there is the high school. An alarm at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School is an automatic mutual aid. This means that all three departments respond no matter what.
Most of the calls are false alarms caused by dusty and dirty detectors. And there are many of them.
"But you don't know," said Yates, "there is always that one time... ."
At most fires there is no way to really know what they will be faced with.
"You arrive at a scene," said Yates, "and you play it by ear whether or not you are going in to the structure. We will go in to rescue people and animals ... for human life we will risk a lot. Structures are secondary.
"Firefighters are a dedicated lot of people," Yates concluded. "But we're not the smartest ... everyone else is leaving [a burning structure] and we are going in... ."
MUTUAL AID — Although this fire is in Norway, Paris and Oxford also responded under mutual aid. Paris Chief Brad Frost confers with firefighters.
FIGHTING FIRE — Oxford Fire Chief Scott Hunter prepares to enter the structure on Gore Road during a recent fire.