BRATTLEBORO—“Fire is like a two-year-old,” Lt. Martin “Marty” Rancourt says: It has a mind of its own. It follows the path of least resistance, but that doesn’t make it predictable.
Going into a burning building is going into the unknown, he says, remembering some close calls with caved-in ceilings.
“You may know a property, but as soon as you fill it full with smoke ... you don’t know that building anymore,” he says.
Rancourt and fellow firefighter Matt Hubbard sit in the second floor of Station 2 in West Brattleboro. They’ve just returned from a medical call.
Maybe it’s his easy laugh, or his enthusiasm for his job, or even his fast way of speaking, but Rancourt appears too young to retire.
The 33-year veteran of the Brattleboro Fire Department disagrees. He says that at 51, the demands of the job he loves have caught up with him.
“I’m young, but not for the fire service,” he says.
Firefighting demands a lot of one’s heart and body. For 30 years, Rancourt has had either a pager or cell phone attached to his hip. He said that firefighters rest rather than sleep, whether they’re at the fire station or at home.
A firefighter’s heart rate can go from 70 to 150 and back again within minutes.
“We call it the roller coaster of the fire service,” he said.
For Rancourt, it’s time to get off the roller coaster.
Firefighting runs in family
Rancourt, who hung up his turnout gear on March 31, first stepped into that gear in 1982, when he was 18 years old.
He served three years as a “call” firefighter as a young man, but he intensely wanted to become a full-time firefighter.
He fought a town policy for the job.
Over 20 years ago, according to Rancourt, an employment policy prohibited family members serving full-time in the same department. He could serve on the call force with his father, Philip W. “Buzzy” Rancourt Sr., who served as chief of the call staff.
Rancourt’s brother Philip Jr., however, was a full-time captain of the BFD’s career staff.
Despite receiving a job offer from the department, Rancourt couldn’t accept it.
Rancourt says he sought legal help. The policy was changed, and he accepted a full-time position with the department in 1985.
Nearby in the kitchen, Hubbard, son of Capt. Ron Hubbard, leans against the counter of Station 2. Hubbard completes his one-year probation on the day Rancourt retires.
“Out with the good, in with the new,” Rancourt teases.
Rancourt says that firefighting often runs in families.
“Once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” he says.
Loving the job
Each day is different, says Rancourt, whohas received multiple honors during his time with the department:
• Honorable Service Award for actions taken with a mentally disturbed young girl in May 2003.
• Meritorious Unit Citation for actions taken as part of a group at the Wilder Block fire in December 2004.
• Community Service Award in 2005 for his volunteer service to the community.
• CPR Save Award for his actions taken to help revive a cardiac arrest patient in May 2009.
• Meritorious Unit Citation for actions taken as part of a rescue group at a barn collapse with a subject trapped in Williamsville on September 22, 2011.
“I love what I do,” says Rancourt, who was promoted to lieutenant in 2000.
The department members are well-trained, he says, calling the BFD “the best department in Vermont.”
Despite many members developing specialty skills, everyone always looks for more education.
In this job, firefighters must combine book smarts with street smarts, he said of his years of training and experience.
‘Timing is key’
Over a career, that zero-to-60 lifestyle takes a toll on a firefighter’s heart, Rancourt observes. Helping people is one of the many reasons he has enjoyed the job.
But with love comes heartache.
Firefighters wish that after they extinguish a building fire the residents could move right back, he says. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
Timing is key, Rancourt continues. If the emergency call reaches the fire station soon enough, the department can respond before fire damages too much of a structure.
The amount of synthetic materials in today’s buildings has changed the firefighting game. According to Rancourt, many such materials burn quicker and hotter, and they release more toxic gases.
Extracting people from car wrecks has changed over the years, he observes. Seat belts, however, still mean the difference between serious injuries and possibly walking away from a wreck, he says.
Rancourt remembers in the 1990s how cars contained “real metal.” Firefighters would cut through the vehicle to get to a person trapped inside.
“Newer cars look like a marshmallow,” when all the airbags deploy, he says.
New cars have airbag cables and electrical systems running throughout the whole frame, he said. Firefighters often peel away the outer shell to check what’s underneath or in some cases disconnect an electrical system before cutting into the car.
Along with training as a swift water rescue and rope technician, Rancourt has spent time working with the department’s Windham County Safe Kids program. Rancourt is also certified as a juvenile firesetter prevention specialist.
“I love dealing with kids,” Rancourt says, laughing. “I’m still a kid at heart.”
Fire fascinates most kids, he notes. Some kids, however, take their fascination to a more extreme level, and that’s where the department’s Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program comes into play.
Rancourt works with kids that the court system or sometimes parents feel have used — or might use — fire in a dangerous way.
For some of the kids who come through the program, setting fires is a phase, he said. For others, deeper issues underlie the situation. In those instances, kids might set fires for specific reasons, like enacting revenge.
Often issues come back to the parents, especially if they’re leaving things like matches or lighters within reach, Rancourt says.
As a fire inspector, Rancourt helps Assistant Fire Chief Pete Lynch inspect buildings in town in order by their street address. Rancourt focuses mostly on rental properties,
Right now, the department is on streets beginning with “W.” Almost 80 percent of the housing stock on Western Avenue is comprised of rental properties, he says.
It’s approximately a five-year process to inspect all the apartments in town, he says.
Medical calls have outpaced fire calls in Rancourt’s experience, a shift that Rancourt attributes in part to the department’s strenuous fire-prevention and education efforts.
Brattleboro-born-and-raised, Rancourt also attributes the change to shifts in society — like drugs, which have become more prevalent in town, he says.
In Rancourt’s opinion, he also sees more elderly people who either can’t or won’t seek proper medical care due to a lack of money or an abundance of pride.
And of course, when people fall, they never do so on a nice flat floor, Rancourt notes with a shrug: They always seem to become wedged between one immovable object and one very heavy one.
The pride line
Over 33 years, Rancourt said he has had some good calls — where everyone lived — and bad calls.
“I don’t think you ever forget the calls,” he responds when asked if any stood out.
A few incidents over the past decade have started to hit him harder, Rancourt admits.
Medical calls involving children and infants take their toll, he says, his eyes becoming misty.
“You think you recover but.....,” he says, his voice trailing.
Witnessing other people’s suffering has prompted Rancourt to respect his family more; after a bad call, he says, most firefighters want only to hug their kids.
Firefighters expect themselves to be “a profession of tough guys,” he says. “Don’t be that firefighter.”
A time comes for all firefighters when they have to “jump over that pride line,” Rancourt continues.
Firefighting isn’t a normal job. Without giving details, Rancourt mentions one call that he completed, thinking he was fine. The next day and night, he still felt fine, he says.
The following morning, however, he pulled over to the side of the road in tears.
“Oh, boy, I’m in that pride position,” he recalls telling himself.
He says he sought support.
Leading by example
Rancourt served under three fire chiefs in his time: T. Howard Mattison, Dave Emery, and current Chief Michael Bucossi.
“He was young,” says Bucossi of Rancourt’s early days in the department. “He’s developed into a rock-solid employee.”
Bucossi describes Rancourt as a tremendous firefighter who leads by example.
“He’s influenced and touched many lives along the way,” Bucossi says.
“You need something, you turn around, and there’s Marty,” he adds. “He always got done what needed to get done, no matter what it was.”
“It sounds clichéd,” Bucossi says. “There’s just no better way to describe Marty.”
Bucossi says that Rancourt’s career with the department started out rough even beyond fighting the town to overturn the employment policy.
He then had to build an identity as a firefighter separate from his father’s and brother’s.
But Rancourt worked hard, Bucossi recalls, and through his work, he brought strong values and work ethic to the department that he passed on to the firefighters who followed.
He believes in the fire service, says Bucossi.
“He lived what he taught,” the chief says.
A new world
Rancourt and his wife, Karen, a paramedic with Rescue Inc., have had a lot of practice balancing family life with working 24/7. Some weeks, they saw each other only for two days out of the seven.
Rancourt jokes that might be one reason they get along so well.
The couple’s daughter, Annie, is a social worker for the New Hampshire Hospital in Concord, N.H. Their son, Christopher, is an athletic trainer in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both offspring are planning weddings, Annie in June and Christopher in September, Rancourt said.
In the future, the elder Rancourts will relocate, to either Montana or Wyoming.
Marty Rancourt offers advice to his fellow firefighters, who should remember that firefighting is a roller coaster, he says.
“Think positive,” he says. “It will get better.”
As an example, Rancourt notes that for 25 years, the town has discussed rehabilitating the fire stations. The buildings are hard to work from now, but he knows eventually new ones will be built.
“Just work through the bad, and the good will come,” he advises.
Rancourt will miss his colleagues and working with the public.
He won’t miss all the times he left his family sitting in a restaurant to finish dinner while he responded to a call.
Rancourt plans to transition from a part-time maintenance job at Cersosimo Industries to a full-time position. And this month, he also starts coaching middle school baseball at Leland & Gray in Townshend.
“It’s time to lead a normal life,” said Rancourt, who admits to feeling nervous about life outside the firehouse.
“It’s going to take some adjusting,” he says. “It’s going to be a whole different world.”