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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Not easily replaced

After almost 29 years, Capt. Billy Johnson will retire from Brattleboro Fire Department

The public is invited to attend a farewell party for Capt. Billy Johnson on Jan. 29 from 3 to 5 p.m. at Central Station on Elliot Street. A presentation will be held at 4 p.m.

BRATTLEBORO—Capt. Billy Johnson, surrounded by file cabinets and practice fire alarms, sits in the training room on the second floor of Central Fire Station. He’s speaking, but a call from dispatch blares over the emergency scanner, and he pauses mid-sentence.

He stands, listening intently. “I may have to go,” he warns. But no, this call won’t require the fire department’s response. Johnson takes his seat again and continues fielding questions about his long career, his imminent retirement, and his firefighting family.

Johnson, 52, retires from the department on Jan. 29 after almost 28 years with the Brattleboro Fire Department. The department will hold a retirement party in his honor at Central Station on Jan. 29 from 3 to 5 p.m.

Born and raised in Brattleboro, Johnson is from a firefighting family. His father served as a full-time firefighter with the BFD. Johnson saw his first action as an on-call firefighter while in high school, and continued as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force.

Since then, he said, he’s responded to more fires that he can count. His closest call, he recalls, was a Guilford Street blaze five years ago, when a burning wooden roof came down on top of him and two other department members. They followed their training and didn’t reflect on the danger. There was time for reflection later, after they solved the problem and their adrenaline dropped off.

Close calls aside, he said, he has enjoyed helping people throughout his career. “When things go wrong, people call the fire department,” he said.

Firefighters staff the town’s two stations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Johnson added. People know their calls will get answered.

He explained that fires represent a small portion of what the department responds to. Attending medical emergencies, assisting neighboring agencies, helping with evacuations, performing welfare checks on elders and others, and replying to questions about burn permits form the bulk of an average day’s work.

“We get thrown into a lot of different things,” he said.

Looking back at his three decades on the job, Johnson noted the business has changed. Firefighting technology has had to keep pace with the variety of combustible materials we surround ourselves with in our homes, offices, shops, and even cars.

Extinguishing a blaze mimics a chemistry demonstration, and isn’t “just about throwing water on a glowing fire. The by-products [in materials] were bad then, but they’re nasty now,” he said.

New foams are specific to suffocating a wood-burning fire or suffocating a fire fueled by oil or petroleum. There’s a lot to keep up with. “It’s a young man’s job,” Johnson said with a laugh.

The department can respond to eight or nine calls in a 24-hour shift, he said. BFD has three shifts, called platoons, consisting of a captain, two lieutenants, and four firefighters. Each platoon works a 24-hour shift with 48 hours off between shifts. Platoons alternate between the Central and West Brattleboro stations.

What stands out for Johnson the most is the department’s camaraderie. He’ll miss it. He explains that staff don’t regard BFD as a stepping stone to a bigger department, but rather stay here to build good lives. Platoons become family.

Johnson said he is proud the members of his platoon always returned home in one piece: “That was my number-one goal.”

Personnel conflicts, which any administrator expects, posed the greatest challenge during his years as a captain. His firefighters move swiftly and together to handle emergencies. Nobody questions a role. But the down-time “family-type disputes” can prove difficult, he noted.

Johnson, who said he considers BPD to consist of the cream of the firefighting crop, said other firefighters in the department are prepared to step up and fill leadership roles.

Johnson plans to retire by taking a full-time job with Barrows & Fisher Oil Co., of 55 Depot St., as a truck driver and service technician. He’s already put in 27 years for the company as a part-timer.

The retirement means his work week will drop from 80 hours to 40, “which is going to be a retirement,” he said with a laugh.

When Johnson started working for the BFD in the 1980s, his annual salary averaged $11,000. Most firefighters used their 48 hours off to take a second job out of necessity. Now, although salaries and benefits have improved, many firefighters still take part-time jobs, he said.

Johnson said he declined an offer to stay on as a call firefighter: He joked that after so many years as a captain, “I wouldn’t have the sense to keep my mouth shut” at a scene.

But, Johnson added, even as an on-call firefighter, he would need to attend many trainings and maintain multiple certifications. Firefighters receive certification as emergency medical technicians and for CPR, hazard mitigation, and firefighting.

Why retire now? Johnson said he feels it’s time to promote other firefighters and that he wanted to leave while young and healthy enough to enjoy retirement.

“Being able to end [my career] safely feels rewarding,” said Johnson, though he’ll miss his fellow firefighters.

Johnson recommends upcoming captains stay safe, keep an open mind, be consistent, be fair, and most of all, listen.

“If I could do it all over again, career-wise, I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Johnson.

Chief Michael Bucossi clicks the intercom in his office, and his voice echoes through the station: “What’s the matter Billy; you didn’t want to tell her [this reporter] about the time you had to eat through a straw?”

At the mention of one of Johnson’s youthful indiscretions, a shouted chorus of happy ribbing echoes from the other side of the station.

Bucossi is the third chief Johnson has worked under. Chief T. Howard Mattison hired Johnson, and had hired Johnson’s father before him. Johnson also served under Chief David Emery.

After the joke, Bucossi sits back in his chair. On a serious note, he said, “the attributes that we’re losing in Billy [Johnson] are very hard to replace.”

He explains: A firefighter needs book smarts and street smarts. The experience that a firefighter gains over time is priceless. So although the department can fill an open position within a month, it doesn’t mean it will replace Johnson’s experience.

Johnson’s departure will shuffle two other staff members and require hiring a third, said Bucossi. The department will hire a new firefighter and promote one firefighter to lieutenant and a lieutenant to captain.

The department will hire the new firefighter first so the platoon isn’t short-staffed, he said. Of the 41 firefighter candidates, seven made it to the interview stage. Bucossi said he anticipates having the new hire in place in early February.

The promotions will be announced mid-February, he added.

“The job is intense, and it takes its toll,” he said.

Certainly the number of calls the department responds to has increased. About 10 years ago, a firefighter might anticipate one or two night calls in a week. Now the department responds almost nightly to calls ranging from medical calls, smoke detectors, car fires, suspicious odors, and building fires, Bucossi said.

Four more staffers might retire as early as next year, representing, with Johnson’s departure, the loss of some 130 man-years of experience, according to Bucossi. The department hasn’t seen this type of turnover in years. It could be a sea change, he said.

In Bucossi’s view, such long service demonstrates the level of commitment staff have to Brattleboro: “The town invests in them, but they invest in the town,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #238 (Wednesday, January 22, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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