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Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi is retiring after 43 years with the department, the last 14 of them as its leader.

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Never a job, but a way of life

Michael Bucossi, who rose in the Brattleboro Fire Department from call staff to fire chief, will retire April 1 after 43 years

BRATTLEBORO—Fire Chief Michael Bucossi flips through a file containing a career’s worth of commendations, certificates, and letters from state officials.

“I’m going to miss getting up in the a.m. and coming into a job that has given me so much,” said Bucossi, reflecting as he prepares to retire on April 1.

“I’m proud and humbled by the success I’ve had here,” he said. “I would never take back a good day or a bad day.”

Even when the sirens are silent, Central Fire Station buzzes with activity.

Flashes of color and movement flicker in Bucossi’s office windows as pedestrians stroll by, their expressions hidden by face masks, and as cars slow for the intersection.

Voices from Dispatch relay information as if broadcasting through a tin can. Capt. David Emery stops to remind Bucossi of a fire alarm test scheduled for a municipal building.

“Forty-three years later, and I continue to look forward to coming to work,” he said. “The career has been terrific to me.”

What started as a whim while standing on the lawn of Brattleboro Union High School watching a hillside brush fire with school buddy Steve Barrett became a career at the only work home he’s ever known.

The BFD took Bucossi on as call staff in the early 1970s. He was hired as a full-time career firefighter in 1977. He moved through the ranks, receiving his promotion to lieutenant in 1983, captain in 1985, assistant fire chief in 2000, and — finally — chief in 2007.

Today, he is approaching retirement with a mix of excitement and uncertainty. He looks forward to sleeping through the night without listening for alarms.

Still, Bucossi said it’s OK to leave now because all the pieces are falling into place.

One piece is that Assistant Fire Chief Leonard “Len” Howard will step into the chief position.

Another piece is that, after decades of effort, the town replaced the worn-out Central and Station 2 (West Brattleboro) stations in a massive capital building project a few years ago.

Finally, the department is in the process of hiring new firefighters while promoting other crew members. As of last week, the BFD had two new firefighters on probationary status, with three more in the wings. The department also has two open lieutenant positions. Six current lieutenants are testing for the one open captain position.

In Bucossi’s opinion, “it’s important to keep promotions in house when you have qualified personnel.”

He notes that one of the probationary firefighters, Mesa Kennedy, is the first female firefighter to join the department in 20 years.

All this change appears to spark feelings of relief and pride in Bucossi. The new recruits will bring fresh energy, and the department will rest in the good hands of its seasoned crew as it moves forward under Howard’s “new vision.”

“It’ll be a smooth transition,” he said.

And here is the unspoken theme of Bucossi’s time at BFD: The fire service is people. It’s both the firefighters and the community they serve.

Learning every day

Bucossi said it isn’t fair to single out any one mentor or teacher who helped him through the years. He’s learned from everyone he’s ever worked with.

“You pick up things from everybody,” he said. “I’ve met chiefs all over the country and, just in the course of a casual conversation, you learn something.”

But there are a few people to whom he is grateful.

Bucossi said most of all he’s grateful for the patience and support from Tracy, his wife, and their children, despite the late nights, an empty chair at family holidays, and missed school events.

“They’ve made it easy. Without this understanding, the years [with BPD] would not be as meaningful,” he said.

Next, he credited former Town Manager Barbara Sondag with opening the door to his promotion to chief. According to Bucossi, the Selectboard had decided to seek only outside candidates. Sondag went to bat for him and persuaded the board to allow him to apply for the position.

“Without her stepping up to do that, it may not have ever happened,” he said. “It was her belief in me that made this possible.”

Bucossi stresses he still had to work for the job and ace the interview process but, without Sondag, he’d never have made it to the interview.

Sondag now works as the city manager of Olivette, Mo. Bucossi said the two exchange the occasional email.

Former Chief David Emery Sr. said that, for a long time, the Selectboard always sought to hire from outside the BFD. He experienced a similar process when then–Chief T. Howard Mattison, his predecessor, retired.

“We train our people to move up through the ranks,” Emery said. “If you tell them ‘no way,’ it’s demoralizing.”

Emery remembers Bucossi from before he joined the firehouse and became Bucossi’s first shift captain. Later, Bucossi was Chief Emery’s assistant chief.

Emery laughed and said he and Bucossi have April 1 in common. In 1989, Emery became chief on the same day of the year that Bucossi will retire. (No comment about April Fool’s Day in the firehouse.)

“Bucossi loved the firehouse,” Emery said. “He was destined to be there.”

He added that Bucossi’s consistency has always stood out and that he was never afraid to take on tasks and see them through.

Emery said he always felt comfortable when Bucossi was in charge.

“He did things well,” Emery said. “The fire department was never a job. It was a way of life.”

The surprise career

“It’s funny how things work out sometimes,” Bucossi said reflecting on his decision to become a firefighter.

Bucossi was a junior in high school when the fire service caught his attention. He jokingly “blames” Barrett, now the town’s director of public works, for introducing him to the job. They both became “call staff” — firefighters who respond when the department needs workers on hand, a position akin to per-diem staff.

But Bucossi didn’t view the fire service as a career.

The summer of his sophomore year in college changed this perspective.

Bucossi was leaning toward a major in physical education. Then, on summer break, he was asked to cover for a firefighter on medical leave.

He “truly fell in love” with the job, he said. “I looked forward to the work and hung out [at the station] on my days off.”

And come September, Bucossi left college and began the formal testing process to become a full-time firefighter.

Throughout his career, he has served on different state boards under three governors and met with multiple state and federal officers. He serves as the second vice-president of the board of officers for the New England Association of Fire Chiefs.

“I’ve had so many opportunities,” Bucossi said. “I’ve been humbled and honored to be appointed to some of these positions.”

Meeting firefighters from big cities and little towns taught Bucossi that “there really isn’t a difference; we’re all going through the same problems and politics.”

Bucossi takes pride in the reconstruction of the town’s two fire stations. The road to rebuilding was more than bumpy for the three-phase $12.8 million project, which also tackled building a new police station on Black Mountain Road.

Partial project funding was approved by Representative Town Meeting in 2011, but due to multiple setbacks, including a coalition-led budget referendum, reconstruction didn’t begin until 2017.

For those who opposed the Police-Fire Facilities Project, the new stations represented a huge and unnecessary chunk of debt to be borne by taxpayers.

But for the firefighters, and Bucossi, the new stations represented a safe, healthy, and modern working environment.

“And it’s made such a different in the morale of the staff,” Bucossi said. “We’re no longer in a dingy fire station that is cramped but in bright, spacious, modern facilities that make the crew want to come to work.”

Bucossi said he will miss the “firehouse banter” and good-natured ribbing that he, even as chief, still receives.

Some of the issues with Central Station on Elliot Street prior to the project included floors that were not built to hold the weight of modern fire trucks and air-quality issues. Mold and snakes — yes, snakes — plagued Station 2.

Bucossi said his leadership style has changed over his career. It’s had to. The world, country, and workforce has changed over four decades, he said.

He said he entered the firehouse during a time when police, fire, and EMS operated with a paramilitary structure and environment. One did not question one’s superiors, he said.

“We were told, ‘Stand on the X and don’t move,’” he said. “We did.”

While the military rank structure remains, the environment has dissipated somewhat, Bucossi said. Modern firefighters are more inquisitive, he observed — what previous generations viewed as insubordination or disrespect is now appreciated as a thirst for knowledge.

Bucossi believes in setting out guidelines for people to follow and then letting those doing the work do the work.

“People don’t grow if they’re not given the leniency to make decisions without people looking over their shoulders,” he said.

After the fire is out and the water dries up

The morning the sun came up on Main Street over the wet and smoky remains of the Brooks House in April 2011 was a hard moment for Bucossi.

Firefighters had spent most of the night fighting the six-alarm fire that gutted the 1871 building. Firefighters and other emergency responders helped evacuate residents living on the upper floors. At one point, Bucossi lost communication with crew members inside the building.

“By the grace of God, nobody was hurt,” he said.

When the dawn lit Main Street, Bucossi watched as millions of gallons of water ran from the five-story building’s windows. He was not prepared for the emotional weight as he absorbed the distinct possibility that Brattleboro might lose a historic downtown building.

He turned to Town Manager Barbara Sondag and said, “Oh, shit, what have we done?”

A decade later, Bucossi recalled, “It made my stomach sink to see that sight[...]. I felt we were going to leave a big hole in the middle of Main Street.”

As it happened, early fears about the building’s fate were unfounded. Today, a rebuilt Brooks House now contains 23 apartments, office space, retail, restaurants, and satellite campuses for the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

Also, in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene crashed through Brattleboro.

“Water flowed down Flat Street like a river,” Bucossi said.

Still, he remembers the department was well prepared for Irene. Bucossi admits that he takes pride in his emergency planning skills and said he will miss sitting with a team prior to a storm or large community event and building a response strategy.

The department participated in operational meetings the week before the storm. Irene wasn’t the department’s first flood event. He and his team knew what to expect.

Or they thought they did.

“We had a good plan in place, and still the storm did what we had not expected or planned for,” he said.

But even the unpredictability of rushing floodwaters were quicker dealt with than the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Early on, the experts didn’t even know what that virus would mean for public health, he said. The department started from a place of uncertainty with a handful of unknowns.

Where the emergency medical services’ response and recovery of Irene happened over a week, Bucossi’s pandemic planning and response has lasted more than a year.

“There’s a lot of nervousness about the unknowns during all of this time,” he said. “It takes a toll on people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made his job harder. He has maintained what he calls the “COVID War Board” — a whiteboard where he tracks the capacity of local hospitals, emergency services staffing numbers, and COVID-19 cases.

The pandemic has worn on the crew’s mental health. Wearing masks, not shaking hands, not giving someone a hug, worrying that they’ll bring the virus home to their families — all these changes have become part of their daily lives, he said.

“It’s been a very draining long-term event,” he said.

Trying to stay abreast of the pandemic-related emergency planning, to keep the crew healthy, and to respond to the community’s needs has consumed a lot of Bucossi’s energy and time. The department responds to fires, accidents, and medical calls. Bucossi estimates that each week three or four of those medical calls are potentially COVID-19-related.

“I’m concerned that we need to continue to not let our guard down but also be aware of what the community is going through,” he said.

‘The worst moments of their lives’

The community’s appreciation buoys Bucossi.

For example, during the pandemic, the department has tried to fill as many requests for drive-by birthday parties as it can. Recently, a young birthday girl sent the department a thank-you note with $1 inside for the firefighters.

It’s not the amount, he said. It’s that she wanted to show the department how much it meant to her.

“[In emergency services], you always see people at their worst and [in the] worst moments of their lives, but you also see such good things happen...it keeps us all going,” he said.

Bucossi believes that the pandemic is starting to end. Within a few weeks, the department plans to reopen the stations to the public — the buildings belong to the taxpayers, after all, said Bucossi — and resume some of its inspection programs.

Bucossi said he’s never lost sight of how much the department needs the community for moral and financial support.

Firefighting exists to keep the community safe, he said. But firefighters can’t do their work without turnout gear, trucks, hoses, or air packs. It’s the community that funds this work.

And that same community, the community that he has served for more than four decades, provides a somber reminder.

“Life is fragile,” said Bucossi, who has throughout his career witnessed the death of adults and — hardest of all — children. He’s attended fires and accidents involving friends and acquaintances.

He has tried to impart two messages to the department.

“One: We’ll figure it out and get it done,” he said. “And two: When we’re called to help, we may be all that stands between someone and the worst day of their lives.”

And this reminds Bucossi of his number one job as chief: to make sure everyone goes home safe.

And soon he will go home himself.

Bucossi added that yes, he’s worked hard, but it was the support and encouragement of the people in his life and who he met along the way who made the biggest difference.

He said he looks forward to uninterrupted time with his family. And he feels relieved in a way, even if he is visited by nervousness about the unknown ahead.

“I look forward to a different life,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #604 (Wednesday, March 17, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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