BRATTLEBORO—It’s September 7 and day two for Brattleboro’s new assistant fire chief, Leonard “Lennie” Howard III.
He has organized his new office, but the candy bowl inherited from outgoing Assistant Chief Peter Lynch, Howard admits, is empty.
“I still need to get to the grocery store,” Howard says with a grin.
The Selectboard announced Howard’s promotion last month. Town Clerk Annette Cappy officially swore him into office during the Selectboard’s Sept. 6 meeting. Howard’s predecessor, Lynch, left the department last month to take a job with the Vermont Fire Academy.
Howard has served with the Brattleboro Fire Department for 29 years, joining the department at the age of 17.
Stepping into leadership roles has long held a spot on Howard’s professional to-do list. Howard said he always aimed for the top.
His recipe: Set goals and keep training.
“[Achieving small goals] help when you take the big steps,” he said.
When he learned Lynch planned to step down, Howard decided it was time to step up.
Passing it on
Helping people and improving the day of someone when they’re suffering is one reason Howard treasures his years in the fire service.
Howard can’t think of one moment where he decided to make the fire service his life. Instead, it was a combination of everything.
“You get some interesting calls,” Howard said with a smile. “That’s what makes this job exciting, I think.”
Amongst the well-wishing and congrats for his promotion, Howard said he received a letter from his first-grade teacher.
“She said she always knew I wanted to be in the fire service,” he said. She told him she was very happy for him, he added.
Howard said he inherited his interest in the fire service from his father, Putney’s former fire chief. Howard sat in his dad’s car during fire calls and watched the firefighters respond to emergencies.
As assistant chief, Howard assumes the duties of the town’s fire prevention program, its health officer, overseeing many of the department’s daily operations, and assisting the chief.
Howard has served as the town’s deputy health officer for 10 years.
The duties take up a lot of time, he said, and the town is investigating moving the job out of the fire department.
With budget season approaching, Howard said building the department’s budget will be a new experience.
Howard served two years on the Vernon Selectboard. While municipal budgets aren’t completely new to him, his role will be different.
Also new to him is the expanded human resources aspect of the job. As shift captain, Howard oversaw six people. As assistant chief he will oversee 21.
As the new second-in-command, Howard hopes to continue Lynch’s work of constantly raising the department’s professional standards.
“It will be hard,” Howard said of filling Lynch’s shoes. “The Vermont Fire Academy has no idea how lucky they are.”
Learning from the best
Watching how other leaders and former Brattleboro fire chiefs ran their departments has taught Howard much. He’s counting on the experiences of past chiefs to help navigate the transition from captain to assistant chief.
“We’re a tight knit group,” Howard said.
He’s enjoyed participating in trainings held at departments outside Brattleboro, which allowed him the opportunity to witness how other departments operate.
“It’s a big tool in your tool box,” he said.
Along with providing Brattleboro’s firefighters with the best training possible, Howard is also looking into the future. He wants to prepare the staff below him to take over when he eventually retires.
“So the town always has a solid foundation to work with,” Howard said.
Chief Michael Bucossi spoke highly of Howard, his dedication, and his desire to build a strong department.
“Howard is very dedicated, very smart, and will serve the department and community with the same integrity as Pete [Lynch],” Bucossi said.
Bucossi anticipates the transition from shift captain to assistant chief will be a big one, but said he’s confident in Howard.
“He prepared himself for this and he moved himself into this [job],” Bucossi said.
Howard looks forward to bringing fresh ideas to the department. In his years as shift captain, he’s heard other firefighters’ thoughts and wishes for their department. He wants to explore these ideas as well.
In with the new
Howard said he’s gearing up for the extensive renovations planned for Central Station later this year and helping the rest of the firefighters through the construction.
“Keep your eye on the big picture,” he has told other firefighters.
The renovations are “long overdue,” he continued. The station serves “as the firefighters’ second home, it’s important the building is safe.”
Howard can’t wait to see the old fake wood paneling in the Central Station’s second floor common room torn down. He can’t wait for the building to have wider bay doors so the drivers can back the trucks into the station without fear of damaging them or the building.
Howard also looks forward to larger bays so firefighters can take items out of the fire trucks without pulling the trucks outside.
Howard said he won’t miss Central Station’s old and inadequate floor drains. In the winter, when the firefighters wash the trucks inside, the drains often back up. Firefighters end up standing in freezing, dirty water, Howard said.
While mastering the challenges of his new job excites Howard, he said he will also miss serving as shift captain.
Howard was promoted to captain in 2007.
Watching fellow firefighters fight the first few fires will be hard, he said.
“I’ll miss getting off that truck, pulling the line, and fighting that fire,” Howard said.
At a fire, the assistant fire chief is the operations officer who oversees the response rather than taking a hands-on role.
Howard said he will also miss serving with his platoon. No more sitting down to dinner with them.
“It’s my second family,” he said.
As a consolation, he reminds himself, “I get to go home tonight.”
A scary moment
Howard was shift captain the night the Brooks House caught fire in 2011. The five-alarm blaze displaced 60 tenants and 10 businesses.
“The building is still there and everybody made it out alive,” he said. “That was a win-win for everybody.”
Howard and some of his platoon were in the burning building’s “penthouse” apartment when they heard the command to evacuate.
The crew didn’t have enough oxygen in their air packs to exit the building by the same route they had entered, he said. So they chose to exit via the roof and aerial ladder.
Howard said he and his team knew they were safe, the ground team, however, lost contact with them for a short time, he said.
It was probably scarier for those on the street, Howard added. “Now as the assistant chief I can see that.”