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Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi makes a point about the diesel soot on the walls of the Central Station. Bucossi was honored last month for 40 years of service to the department.

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‘The firefighters and police became the bastard child of not yet, not now’

Brattleboro fire chief, reflecting on 40 years of service, stays upbeat but decries the work environment of a crumbling firehouse

BRATTLEBORO—Fire Chief Michael Bucossi wipes his finger along the tiled wall of Central Station.

Holding up his finger covered in diesel soot, Bucossi said, “This is what my guys are breathing in every day.”

Firefighters scrub away the soot coating the bay walls that house Brattleboro’s emergency vehicles, said Bucossi, who has led the department since 2007.

As chief, Bucossi said, his number-one job is ensuring the safety of his firefighters “to make sure they all go home at the end of their shift.”

“I need to represent and protect the staff,” said Bucossi, whose department recognized him last month for his 40 years in the Brattleboro Fire Department at the BFD’s biennial awards ceremony.

The chief and assistant chief are the public figures, Bucossi continued. “The staff arrives, carries the weight, and they do the work.”

“This was the furthest thing from my mind when I left Brattleboro for college in 1975,” he said.

On the second floor of the station, the man who never envisioned firefighting as a career crosses a patch of linoleum tiles with a crumpled line etched across their centers. The floor is buckling.

The urinal in the upstairs bathroom wears a wide bandage of grout, a war wound from the fire station’s shifting walls.

“I have a lot of beliefs, and I have a lot of wants and wishes for the fire department and for the town as a whole,” Bucossi said.

“The firefighters and police became the bastard child of not yet, not now,” he said of the many years Brattleboro has delayed building new stations.

But Bucossi said he strives to pass down this ethos to the rest of the department: The BFD does all it can to serve the citizens of Brattleboro.

Yes, budget constraints exist, he said. Yes, staffing constraints exist.

But the department’s mantra remains, “We’ll figure it out. We’ll get it done.”

Stumbling upon a path

Bucossi joined the department’s call force in 1974. He loved the work.

But a career as a firefighter? It never occurred to him.

Classmate, friend, and volunteer firefighter Steve Barrett — yes, Public Works Director Steve Barrett — encouraged Bucossi to join the call force when they were still high school seniors.

Bucossi remembers a day as they watched a “fairly large fire on the mountain” from their school’s lawn. Barrett mentioned his dad was the deputy chief of the call staff.

“It’s fun,” Bucossi remembers Barrett saying. “You should join too.”

He did.

In the summer of 1977, Bucossi returned to hometown Brattleboro for the summer.

Then-Chief T. Howard Mattison hired the student for the summer filling in for an injured full-time firefighter.

At summer’s end, Mattison offered the 19-year-old a full-time job.

“I still at that point didn’t know what to do with my life,” said Bucossi.

Figuring he could change his mind if he didn’t like the job, yet knowing he felt serious about firefighting, Bucossi left Springfield College in Massachusetts and accepted Mattison’s offer.

Bucossi notes that he’s taken many college classes in his career but holds no formal degree — “and here I am, 40 years later. I’ve never looked back and never regretted any of the decisions I made.”

In the Central Station hose tower, Bucossi inspects two heavy wooden beams supporting the lower catwalk firefighters stand on when hanging hoses to dry.

The catwalk’s original support, a steel I beam, hangs mid-air because the wall has pulled away. A long crack in the corner extends upward.

Bucossi taps the catwalk with his foot. A section of the metal walkway bounces up and down.

“This is new,” he mumbles to himself.

There because he wants to be

In 2007, former Chief David Emery Sr. recommended Bucossi to take over as chief to former Town Manager Barbara Sondag in his letter of resignation, said Bucossi.

The Firefighters’ Union, unbeknownst to Bucossi, also sent a letter of support to the town endorsing the then-assistant fire chief.

Sondag assembled a panel of five people, a combination of fire chiefs, citizens, and Emery as an observer, Bucossi recalls.

“She locked me in a room with them for 2{1/2} hours,” he said. “They basically fired questions — technical, vision, legal, hypothetical situations — at me.”

An hour after the interview, Sondag called Bucossi to welcome him as Brattleboro’s newest fire chief.

Emery remembers Bucossi as an “all-around good firefighter.”

“You know why Mike’s at the fire station?” Emery asked. “Because he wants to be and that makes the difference.”

“He loves that job,” the former chief continued. “It’s easy to be a good leader when you love what you do.”

Bucossi caught on quickly and lent a hand whenever someone needed help, he said.

Emery said Bucossi excels at reaching thorough and logical decisions after doing research and gathering information.

Not all firefighters have that patience, he said.

“I would still hire him now,” Emery said. “He has proved himself time and time again.”

Even as a captain, Bucossi “stood out” as a good choice for promotion to assistant chief, said Emery.

“We should groom all our firefighters to become officers and our officers to become chiefs,” Emery continued.

If he could change anything, Emery said, it would be the fire station.

Brattleboro has repeatedly shelved rehabilitating or constructing buildings to replace the town’s two fire stations and police station.

The first mention that the 1940s-era Central Station showed signs of problems to come is mentioned in a memo from then-fire chief T. Howard Mattison to then-Town Manager Elwin “Corky” Elwell, dated 1968.

The most recent back-and-forth has lasted approximately 12 years. It’s a double-edged sword. The emergency services operate out of substandard buildings. Taking on the $14 million project would increase property taxes in a town where many already feel too stretched to pay more.

The building is disintegrating. Past firefighters have already tried to patch it together, continued Emery, whose two sons are in local emergency services — David, a BFD lieutenant, and Chad, a Brattleboro Police sergeant.

The elder Emery lists past attempts to repair the building or construct additions in the 1980s. The firefighters did most of the work themselves, he said. They’re not contractors. The buildings have passed the point where patching up will do the job.

“It’s their home, they spend one-third of their lives there,” he said.

Staying connected

Bucossi has stayed with the BFD because he’s always felt comfortable in the department.

“I enjoy coming into work still every day,” he said. “I haven’t gotten tired of the job, and I’m still very passionate about my job.”

It’s always challenging, he said. It’s always given him opportunities to grow and learn.

The municipality is a good employer, Bucossi said.

“It’s very important to me to help to continue the growth of this department,” he said.

Bucossi passes a few of his firefighters as he walks to the station’s basement.

Firefighters’ shifts rotate 24 hours at the station then 48 hours off.

At the station on a recent day, one firefighter sweeps the floor. Earlier, the trucks received a cleaning. Another firefighter answers the phone. No one sits idle.

When asked about maintaining employee morale in an intense job, Bucossi said, “I think they all really enjoy their jobs and believe there’s a purpose for their being here and they believe in that purpose.”

When a chief believes in and trusts his or her folks, Bucossi continued, they give that respect back.

The chief said he tries to create a relaxed atmosphere in the stations.

Firefighters have enough stress, he said. They don’t need to feel edgy between calls.

The firefighters’ union contract requires that all department members live in Brattleboro or a bordering town. Bucossi believes department heads should live in the town that employs them.

It’s important municipal employees should live, shop, and eat in their community, Bucossi said.

“If you don’t live in the town, you’re not in touch with the town,” he said. “I’m sure it’s old fashioned, it’s just something I’ve always believed.”

Bucossi lives in Brattleboro with his wife Tracy. The couple has three grown children and three grandchildren ages 4 months to 7 years.

His family provides tremendous support, said Bucossi. The job takes him from family birthday parties, picnics, or school events. Bucossi didn’t come home for two days during the Brooks House Fire in 2011.

Coffee cups and flashovers

In the station’s basement, Bucossi points to a coating on the ceiling designed to stabilize the floor above.

The weight of the trucks combined with the floor’s age and the movement caused in the floor when trucks enter or exit the station have taken a toll.

Water runs through seams in the floor whenever firefighters wash the trucks or the town gets a heavy rain, he said.

The building blows fuses weekly.

The biggest change Bucossi has witnessed in the fire service over 40 years is in technology and protective gear.

When he started, Bucossi remembers the protective clothing firefighters wore: thigh boots, a long raincoat, and a plastic or metal helmet.

“Firefighters today are completely enveloped in protective gear,” he said.

Air packs started as steel bottles, he said, and are now made of a composite material that weighs less than steel, putting less stress on the firefighters’ bodies.

Technology, however, brings challenges.

Bucossi said modern furnishings and building materials collapse quicker, produce more chemical byproduct, and contribute to faster flashovers.

A flashover happens when all the materials in a room reach their respective ignition points simultaneously and then combust at once.

“A flashover is not survivable,” he said. “It’s a ball of fire, basically.”

Although the department’s inspections and fire prevention program has helped decrease the number of fires, fire calls represent the majority of calls the department responds to, he said.

The department responds to specific types of medical calls, Bucossi added, such as cardiac arrests, breathing emergencies, severe trauma calls, or drug overdoses.

When asked if there is a duplication of services between the BFD and Rescue Inc., Bucossi gave a firm “no.”

“It takes both agencies to cover [Brattleboro] efficiently and properly,” he said. “Neither department can do it on their own.”

Hopes for at least a shovel

Back in his office, Bucossi only half jokes about where he places his coffee mug during rain storms to catch drips. Multiple brown water stains brood on the ceiling.

He said he had hoped to choose his retirement date from a drip-free new office in a new fire station.

Now, when he chooses the retirement day, Bucossi said, he hopes to at least see a shovel in the ground for new police and fire stations.

“The fire department staff works in antiquated buildings that are unhealthy with unsafe conditions,” Bucossi said.

“As a resident, I’m very aware of the tax rate, I’m very aware of the costs, but this is town infrastructure that’s only going to get worse,” he continued. “It’s conditions that professional career firefighters and police shouldn’t be working and living in.”

In the long run, waiting longer to fix the fire or police stations won’t save the residents money.

When asked what he’s the most proud of over the past 40 years, Bucossi shakes his head.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the department,” he said. “I don’t achieve without their support, without their hard work.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #308 (Wednesday, June 3, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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