BRATTLEBORO—Why do people devote their lives to firefighting?
It’s not a simple question, but for newly retired firefighter Thomas Barrows, the answer is simple.
“It’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
Barrows grew up in the fire service.
He started his career as a volunteer for the Dummerston Fire Department at the ripe age of 15. Brattleboro hired him full-time when Barrows turned 19.
He retired after 35 years with the department on May 1.
“This is hard for me to do, because I’ve been here so long,” he finally answered.
On the second floor of the West Brattleboro Fire Station, the voices of dispatch workers, other emergency personnel, and Barrows’ fellow firefighters bounce against the station’s low ceiling.
Barrows and Lt. Dan Hiner pause, listening to a call.
“Is that us?” Barrows asks.
This time, the call isn’t for West B station, and Barrows continues his conversation.
Barrows never thought of doing anything else, he said.
Each day has had its own flavor, said Barrows. Each call is an unknown. It’s exciting.
Barrows said he has enjoyed helping people.
Hiner said, “He’s going to be lost. It’s going to be totally different.”
Barrows nods. He’s never known the trappings of civilian life, like holidays and weekends.
Hiner briefly contemplates whether he has any juicy stories to share about his co-worker.
“He better not,” said Barrows. “I’m cooking dinner tonight.”
Most firefighters try new equipment or gear when tragedy has struck.
Barrows smiles, as a teacher he gets to “play with the toys.”
Since he started teaching for the department in 1991, it’s a rare Brattleboro firefighter who hasn’t learned how to operate the BFD’s trucks at Barrows’ elbow. Behind the firetrucks’ buttons and levers exists a series of hydraulics, gears, and fire-fighting science.
With teaching, there’s no need to push people, he said. Let students build their skills and grow. That way they’ll learn the most important lesson: “Now you know you can do it.”
He’s also taught classes locally and for the state Division of Fire Safety for 20 years.
While some firefighters want to chase flames through burning buildings, Barrows said, “I’d be just as happy running the truck.”
“I’ve seen a complete change-over in all the trucks,” he said.
The basics of pump theory remain constant, but trucks are organized differently, he said.
Early in his career, Barrows remembers that fire trucks contained slots in the body that held smaller equipment like axes. Everything fit snug, until the trucks bounced their way up Route 9 over potholes on their way to a mutual aid call in Wilmington.
Then everything popped out of the truck like “toast from a toaster,” he smiled. On the return trip to Brattleboro, firefighters stopped to retrieve their breadcrumb trail of flyaway equipment.
Barrows has also witnessed a change in the firefighters joining the department.
More and more have college degrees in fire science, he said. Very smart, very book smart.
But Barrows has also seen a lessening of some mechanical or tactile skills.
One is not better than the other, he stressed. Both are needed.
The chemistry behind fighting fires has changed, he said. For example, trucks carry foam and it’s used for almost every type of fire.
Hazardous materials change daily, it seems to Barrows. Depending on quantities and type, they don’t always require labels.
Approaching an accident scene — motor vehicle, tanker truck or rail car — is like walking blindfolded for emergency personnel, he said. All sorts of chemicals or hazardous materials travel the country’s railways and roadways.
Barrows called to Hiner, “Remember the dentist’s office?”
According to Barrows, a few years ago, a local dentist’s office received a package of chemicals that the doctors commonly used in their practice. The chemicals inside the unmarked box were supposed to remain refrigerated, but instead were left on a counter.
The contents overheated.
“And they popped,” knocking down a set of cabinets above, said Barrows.
What can’t be taught, but is inherited
The Brattleboro Fire Department has experienced four retirements, including Barrows, in the past three years. Fire Chief Michael Bucossi has watched the years of lost experience accumulate.
More than a century of institutional memory and expertise has left the department, said Bucossi.
“It’s the little things that they learn about the town that we also lose,” said Bucossi.
Maps don’t list “Sawdust Alley,” at the end of Birge Street, he continued. The quirks of the town, its buildings and roads, and how they mesh together, aren’t in a handbook.
“That’s something that can’t be taught,” Bucossi said. “That’s inherited.”
Bucossi described Barrows as, “a very dedicated and solid employee for 35 years.”
But that doesn’t say enough, continued the chief, because Barrows believed in what he did for the fire department.
“It’s not just a job,” added Bucossi.
Not all firefighters could run the trucks and pumps as well as Barrows, Bucossi said.
Barrows passed on the knowledge of what happened behind the levers and buttons. This raised fellow firefighters’ understanding of how to operate the department’s equipment to a higher level, he said.
Bucossi agreed that fewer firefighters arrive on the job with mechanical skills.
In Barrows’ younger days, more firefighters possessed a baseline understanding of mechanics because they had worked on cars, tractors, or chainsaws with their families or on the farm, commented Bucossi.
Things have changed, and students’ education has shifted away from mechanical skills and more towards computers and other course work, he said.
A lucky career, and a new beginning
Barrows said he’s been lucky. In a small community like Brattleboro, emergency service personnel can often respond to calls involving people they know. He has not responded to calls for close friends.
“That’s a good rarity,” he said.
Still, hard calls leave their mark.
Not long into his career, Barrows attended a fatal tractor trailer accident on Route 9 between Brattleboro and Marlboro.
A young boy, Barrows guesses between 10 and 12 years old, out for a ride with his father in dad’s tractor trailer, died in the accident. The father was okay.
Barrows recalls that after that call, the department realized that firefighters needed debriefing to help them navigate their emotional responses.
“At times, your emotions can get the best of you,” he said.
A smile crosses his face when Barrows is asked what he’s enjoyed about his career. Finally. he answers that nothing jumps out.
He knows he’ll miss the camaraderie of the fellow firefighters he has lived with for 24 hours at a time for 35 years.
“It’s essentially the second family,” Barrows said.
Retirement was a hard decision for Barrows. He finally picked May 1 because, if he didn’t pick a date, he would have stayed another five years.
The fire service also runs through almost every member of Barrows non-BFD family.
Barrows and wife Michelle, a volunteer firefighter for Vernon, met during one of his teaching gigs. His son is a volunteer firefighter for Dummerston. His daughter has taken time off as a volunteer firefighter while she’s raising children.
Barrows and Michelle plan to relocate to Pennsylvania where Barrows will start his next career as a full-time instructor teaching firefighters to operate trucks and pumps for a fire equipment company.
He hopes the change in location will help with his transition out of the 24/7 fire service.
“This is the norm. This is what I know,” he said. “I’m essentially leaving this family.”
Still, Barrows feels ready for retirement.
“It’s time,” he said.
BFD has hired firefighter Kevin Lambert from Charlotte to replace Barrows. Lambert has three years experience and a degree in fire science from Vermont Technical College.