BRATTLEBORO—Few kids who play with toy fire trucks drive the real things when they grow up.
Lt. Jason Davis and On-Call Firefighter Ray Bessette turned their love of fighting fires and sense of duty into more than 30 years of service with the Brattleboro Fire Department.
Davis has worked full-time in town for 14 years, and Bessette has fulfilled 20 years with the department.
On-call firefighters are the department’s volunteer members. The on-call members participate in training and receive a stipend from the department but are not full-time staff members.
“It’s love,” said Bessette of why he continues to keep up with the hours of trainings and responding to calls.
Both men have long family histories with firefighting.
Bessette always expected to grow up and become a firefighter like his dad, uncle, and some family friends.
He started as a volunteer with the West Dummerston Volunteer Fire Department at age 15.
Davis grew up listening to his family’s emergency scanner. His grandfather, father, brother, and cousins were all firefighters.
Even as kid, Davis played with fire trucks.
“I thought everybody did it,” he said of becoming a firefighter.
Davis volunteered for 15 years with West Dummerston. He served as an on-call member in Brattleboro for two years before taking a full-time position.
Working with the BFD is more than putting out fires, said Davis and Bessette.
“People don’t realize we go to as many incidents,” said Davis. “There’s always something in this town.”
The department members respond to “anything life-threatening,” said Davis.
There are tragic calls, said Davis, but there are rewarding days, too.
Firefighters respond to falls, to car accidents, and, of course, fires.
A call responding to a tour bus that flipped over on Interstate 91 in 2002 left its mark on Bessette.
More than 20 people heading north for a ski trip were injured when their bus rolled over in a storm.
Bessette was called in to stop traffic entering the interstate at Exit 2.
Whenever a fire-damaged house is knocked down, said Davis, that always feels like a failure.
The department answers any alarm call, even if it’s a false alarm or calls other than fires, like broken sprinklers and flooded basements, said Davis.
Davis smiles as he describes how firefighters have even chased bats out people’s apartments at 2 a.m.
There’s a lot of love for the job, bats and all.
“There’s always something different,” said Davis.
Both men receive extensive training.
Bessette participates in monthly trainings. It’s very time consuming, he said.
Bessette, who works in Keene and has a part-time job in Brattleboro, added that not all employers will allow on-call firefighters to take time off work to respond to a fire.
Both men volunteer for the local dive team, part of the state’s Urban Search and Rescue team (USAR). The all-volunteer group responds to a variety of calls like submerged cars, body searches, or searches for suspected evidence during police investigations.
The dive teams travel to other states to help on searches after storms or building collapses, said Davis.
The BFD houses the team’s pontoon boat, said Davis, paid for through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Other funds come through the team’s own fundraising.
“You don’t really know until you get there, and then you’ve got to figure something out,” said Davis of assessing the scene of a call.
It seems every seven to 10 years we have a big fire downtown, observed Davis.
A Jan. 28 tractor-trailer accident on Interstate 91 in the narrow area of the West River bridge construction project required a careful approach, explained Davis.
When multiple emergency vehicles go to such a scene, it’s important not to box one another in, he said.
Fighting fires on Main Street is different from extinguishing a blaze in a single family home, said Davis.
Some of the essential tools of firefighting like axes and saws have not changed in years, said Bessette and Davis, while other equipment has changed dramatically.
Davis said when he first started as a firefighter, air tanks were heavy steel canisters. They’ve been replaced by lightweight fiberglass-wrapped air tanks.
The turn out gear, the protective clothing, has changed the most, said Davis.
The protective equipment shields firefighters from high temperatures. Firefighters can go deeper into blazes.
But, said Davis, there are drawbacks. The suits also hold in a person’s body heat better, and that can lead to overheating. Going deeper into a fire is also more dangerous. Firefighters can find themselves overheated and exhausted in the middle of an inferno.
Good times, hard times
Davis was one of many firefighters who responded to the April 2011 five-alarm fire at the Brooks House.
Davis said he met the “duty crew,” the firefighters who were working that night, on the fifth floor.
“You couldn’t see a lot,” Davis said remembering the hallway filled with dense smoke.
“Even the biggest hallway can feel narrow or they can feel huge,” said Davis of the tricks smoke can play on a firefighter’s mind.
The 2010 fire at The Marina restaurant hit the department hard, said Bessette.
“That was like our second home,” he said.
The BFD has three platoons of seven firefighters each. Each platoon rotates, serving a 24-hour shift and then having 48 hours off.
“You spend a third of your life here,” said Davis.
It’s tough on families, he added. It’s why some firefighters leave the department.
But Davis and Bessette plan on hanging in until they reach retirement age.
“I think it’s the love,” said Bessette of the long hours and rewarding work.
The men laugh and say that serving in a fire department is a lot like a family.
“We laugh, joke, argue, or fight,” said Davis.