BRATTLEBORO—Next time a fire alarm goes off in Brattleboro, the town can thank Dale Shipp.
For the alarm. Not for the fire.
Shipp, fire alarm superintendent for the Brattleboro Fire Department (BFD), has spent 40 years maintaining, organizing, repairing, and upgrading the town’s municipal fire alarm system, which consists of more than 25 miles of cable and 290 alarm boxes, as well as the town’s traffic lights.
He also has acted as the town communications officer in emergencies and maintains the fire department’s radio system.
Shipp, who joined the BFD in 1969, officially says good-bye to the department on July 1.
The department will hold an open house in his honor June 29 at the Central Station, Elliot Street, from 3 to 6 p.m. The community is welcome.
Other than a two-year stint as an employee in the private sector, from 1979 to 1981, Shipp has called Central Station home.
“In high school, I was the geek with the plastic shirt pocket protector,” said Shipp, whose love of tech kept him active in the high school’s AV department and theater group and fueled his interest in being an amateur radio operator.
Shipp moved to town with his parents at age five, and his sister still lives in the area. He and his wife Bonnie have two daughters and six grandchildren who live in Connecticut. The couple will move to Southington, Conn., to live closer to their family.
Shipp has enjoyed his job, the town, and the townspeople. “You try to serve the people of Brattleboro,” he said.
He won’t miss the 3 a.m. phone calls.
Shipp and Fire Chief Michael Bucossi, longtime colleagues and friends, sat one recent day in Shipp’s office, taking verbal jabs at each other and laughing.
“There are many years of good and bad times that we have shared,” said Bucossi.
Gesturing to the pickup truck photos displayed on Shipp’s wall, Bucossi teased, “Let me get this: we keep fire trucks 30 to 40 years while you’ve gone through four [pickups].”
“We won’t miss Dale,” Bucossi joked.
“I’m my worst enemy,” Shipp said about the department’s teasing.
“Dale just opens the door, and lets us all walk in,” Bucossi said, laughing.
The first big fire Shipp remembers was the Woolworth fire, where Key Bank now stands, in 1972.
“The thing was ripping,” said Shipp of the pre-Christmas fire that caught some firefighters in the basement. They walked out with scars, he added.
The January 1977 fire that destroyed the Barrows Block on Main Street was equally big, as was the Paramount Theater fire in April 1991.
“It was pouring rain, nothing should have burned,” remembers Shipp of that April day.
Then the came the December 2004 Wilder Block fire, and finally the five-alarm fire that gutted the Brooks House in April 2011.
“The Brooks fire was the most miserable, most stubborn, and with the most possibility of losing people,” said Shipp.
Technology has changed since Shipp’s early days with the department. His office, tucked in the front left corner of the Central Station on Elliot Street, is filled with logs and records, books, supplies, one bank of alarms, and a workbench.
His office used to hold the original alarm system. When Central Station opened in 1949, the alarm system was comprised of large mechanical relays, batteries, and ventilation.
“It’s all shrunk right down,” Shipp said of the modern technology.
Shipp holds up a block of gears and springs. The guts of the code wheel fire alarm looks like the inner workings of an antique clock. He then shows off the new generation of fire alarms, an electric box with a circuit board that allows him to connect eight codes to the board, each representing an area of town.
“There’s something going on all the time,” said Shipp of his work.
For example, Sovernet’s recent work stringing fiber-optic lines down Putney Road has kept Shipp busy creating space on the poles for new wires and boxes.
Two of Shipp’s favorite projects include the 1997 building of the town’s consolidated dispatch and the 2004 year-long project of building the town-wide radio system.
A Firefighters Assistance Grant awarded to the department in 2004 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency enabled Shipp to install the three-site repeater radio system, which ensures the signal remains clear despite Brattleboro’s hills and valleys.
“The system is basic but practically bulletproof,” said Shipp of the municipal fire alarms.
The system operates by assigning different closed circuits to areas of the town. If the electrical current flows, the system works. If a line breaks, Shipp is alerted to the trouble area. The rest of the system can operate even when a portion is disabled. The fire alarm boxes are operated and powered from the firehouse, which has both battery and generator backups.
During a heavy snowstorm a few years ago that knocked out power, said Shipp, the fire alarm system remained the only method for the community to report an emergency.
The municipal alarm system, if maintained properly, costs little money, said Shipp. Other communities that cut their fire department budgets to the quick have landed in hot water when their municipal alarm systems degrade, he added.
“It’s worth it,” said Shipp of the upkeep, since emergency response personnel like to have backups to the backups.
“When things come apart they generally really come apart,” he said.
Learning and passing on the craft
Shipp has honed his tech skills at training seminars and networking with other operators. “Sometimes you learn more shooting the breeze [with other operators] than [you do at] the seminar,” he said.
Shipp will hand the reins to Firefighter Joe Newton, who has served in the department since 2004.
Although predecessor and successor have worked closely to prepare Newton, it’s the little things that an employee accumulates that will prove tough to lose, said Bucossi.
Little things like “the back-door phonebook” of people Shipp calls in a pinch, knowing whom to call for favors or who might know the inner secrets of different pieces of equipment.
Shipp monitors 197 master fire alarm boxes attached to buildings in town. Those boxes also attach to local businesses and households, said Bucossi.
Bucossi paled to the color of a paper towel only when reminded that Shipp is leaving.
Bucossi expressed faith in Newton, but the chief admitted he’ll feel anxious during Newton’s list of firsts, like when the first big thunderstorm hits or when the first tree takes out power wires.
“You can show just so much, and the rest you figure out the hard way,” said Shipp.
When asked what advice he’d like to give Newton, Shipp answered, “Don’t make the chief mad.”
Bucossi laughed, and added, “Don’t spend money.”
The clowns in the woodwork
Shipp laughs and tells a fond story from his days working under former Fire Chief David Emery.
The town bought a new Ford Explorer to serve as the chief’s vehicle, and Shipp spent a week rigging the sirens, radio, and lights for Emery’s new ride.
“The chief said, ‘Let’s take this for a test drive and see what falls apart,’” said Shipp.
The test drive went well, and Shipp returned to his office.
“Then someone yelled, ‘The cruiser’s on fire!’,” said Shipp, who ran into the bay.
“Smoke was blowing out of every crack in that car,” said Shipp. “I died about 10,000 deaths right there. Then the clowns started falling out of the woodwork.”
His colleagues had hooked the department’s smoke machine to the new cruiser.
“That was the biggest gotcha,” said Shipp.