BRATTLEBORO—The sun shone bright and the wind blew chilly across the lawn of the West Brattleboro Station 2 as firefighters and family members gathered around Leonard Howard III and Charles W. Keir III.
One after the other, the two men raised their right hands and repeated their oaths — as fire chief and assistant fire chief, respectively — to Town Clerk Hilary Francis.
What Howard and Keir’s brief swearing-in ceremony on March 29 lacked in fanfare, it more than made up for in heart.
Retiring Fire Chief Michael Bucossi presided over the ceremony, sharing sobering yet heartfelt words of wisdom that he received from at his swearing in from then–Town Manager Barb Sondag.
“[Sondag said], ‘You now have the awesome responsibility of people’s lives in your hands, you must always remember that.’ That one comment has resonated with me for 13 years,” Bucossi said.
“I now say it to you,” he continued. “Many decisions you make could have a profound effect on someone’s well-being. You will be putting your members in harm’s way; your first responsibility is to keep them safe and send everyone home, including yourselves.”
A flurry of promotions and new staff mark the start of a big transition for the BFD.
Howard became chief on April 1, while Keir moved into his new role on April 5. Lt. Eric Poulin is being promoted to captain. The department recently hired five new firefighters.
The departure of Bucossi, who has stepped down after 43 years with the BFD, means not only a change in leadership at the top of the department’s ranks, but also the promotion of firefighters within the department — or what the former chief refers to as “the domino effect.”
The new leadership also brings with it new visions. For example, firefighters will begin to interact with community members more often during non-critical events, said Howard, who will soon begin work on a long-term strategic plan.
Leading through inspiration
In his comments during the swearing-in ceremony, Bucossi said that he and Howard have developed an intuitive communications shorthand.
“We’ve just read each other’s looks throughout the years,” the former chief said.
Howard remembers one particularly poignant expression Bucossi gave him at the scene of the Brooks House fire in 2011.
For his part, Bucossi remembers the look on Howard’s face at the 2004 Wilder Block fire.
Bucossi said when he arrived, he found Howard pulling a long water hose with a Blitzfire nozzle, which is designed to spray a strong stream of water with the goal of quickly drowning a fire.
“I think we’re going to need this,” Bucossi remembers Howard saying.
Later in the ceremony, Howard called the fire service “a profession of tradition.”
Yet, as the workforce has changed, so must the department, he said.
“Now, the fire service must adjust to how people see things and learn things,” said the new chief, who hopes his leadership encourages the other firefighters to bring their best to the department.
One way Howard plans to do so is by getting colleagues’ input on an update of the department’s mission statement and core values.
“I want staff to keep enjoying coming to work and feeling inspired,” he said.
Updating the firefighters’ daily routine might also be on the table, he said, though the regular routine of checking equipment, for example, will remain.
Howard wants to add components that also prioritize physical fitness and mental wellness “to help folks handle what they see every day,” he said, referring to crisis and trauma that can lie at the other end of a call to 911.
It’s important that the community see the firefighters out and about when there isn’t a crisis, the new chief said. He plans to have the staff out in public.
“I want us to be accessible,” he said.
‘A proud profession’
Howard joined the Brattleboro Fire Department’s call force in 1987. He was hired as a career firefighter 10 years later.
The promotion to lieutenant followed in 2001. His “ambition and desire” to reach chief kicked in when he was promoted to captain in 2007, he said.
Nine years later, Howard was promoted to assistant fire chief.
He holds an associate’s degree in fire science and has received two Meritorious Unit Citations.
The first came in 2011 for actions taken when responding to a fire at 118 Main St.; the second, for his response to a fatal car accident in 2014.
“The fire service is a proud profession,” Howard said, and one that he loves.
His father, Sam, served as Putney’s fire chief. Howard recalls eating, sleeping, and hanging out with his father at the fire station there.
“I grew up in the firehouse,” he said.
As Howard rose through the ranks, each stage of his journey into leadership created its own lessons for him, he said.
For example, as shift captain, he often needed to make quick decisions in the middle of a crisis. As the assistant chief, he needed to slow down and understand how the department operated. A big lesson was learning to step back from situations and “look, listen, and feel” others’ perspectives, he said.
“Bucossi taught me that, and I’m grateful,” he said.
Howard feels confident about the personnel reorganization. Even though the department is losing institutional knowledge with Bucossi’s retirement, Howard said the department still has “a good group of officers that will help” new hires learn the ropes.
“Our job is to help people,” Howard said. “My job also extends to helping the staff.”
Howard added that he needed to thank Becky, his wife, and their family for all that they do.
As he introduced Keir, Bucossi told the audience a story, one meant as a good-natured ribbing.
He said that when Keir applied for a position on the BFD’s career staff in 2001, he became the only person in the department’s history to do so while wearing a New York Yankees cap.
Howard complimented Keir, saying that his work ethic and his ability to motivate people stood out during the process to select the new assistant chief.
He has a lot of good ideas and is “tuned into the new generation of firefighters,” Howard added.
Keir said he has looked forward to moving through the ranks since the start of his career and that he views new leadership roles as opportunities for personal and professional growth.
In his new role, he hopes to help his co-workers achieve their professional goals as well.
The entire assistant chief application process felt “strenuous,” Keir said. The hardest part, he said, were the oral boards, which were “rigorous.”(2)
Keir said he first became interested in the fire service at age 13. While mowing lawns to make extra money, he pitched his landscaping skills at the firehouse near his home in Pownal.
He served as a junior firefighter from age 13 until he was 18. He was hired in Brattleboro in 2001.
His promotion to lieutenant came in 2006 and captain followed in 2017.
Keir holds an associate’s degree in fire science and has received two Meritorious Unit Citations. The first was in 2011, for actions taken at a barn that collapsed, trapping a person inside. The second was for actions taken during a traffic accident in Vernon in 2015. He has also received three “CPR Save” Awards.
As assistant chief, Keir will assume the department’s building inspection program. He also expects to take on various initiatives within the community, including efforts to help the community “get back to normal” after the pandemic.
As Howard and Keir spoke with their families and fellow firefighters, Bucossi joked that his calendar is now “officially clear.”
“They’ll both do a tremendous job,” he said of Howard and Keir.
“They’re two dedicated and smart men who will bring the department to a new level,” the former chief said. “I look forward to seeing where they take it.”