BRATTLEBORO — In 1974, during the fall of his senior year at Brattleboro Union High School, Steve Barrett joined the Brattleboro Fire Department as an on-call firefighter.
He's been serving the town ever since.
Forty-seven years later, Barrett's long career of serving his town - including 41 years with the Public Works Department - is winding down.
He will be retiring as public works director on Dec. 18, which gives him plenty of time to bring his successor, Assistant Public Works Director Dan Tyler, up to speed in the complexities of running the department.
Barrett, a lifelong resident who'll turn 64 later this month, says he learned a lot from his mentors - former Fire Chief Dave Emery and former Public Works Director Jerry Remillard - and is trying to pass on the lessons learned to Tyler.
First, a firefighter
Barrett said firefighting was “my first love,” and when BUHS started a fire academy class to train people for the fire service, he signed up and was immediately hooked. One of his classmates was Mike Bucossi, who eventually because the town's fire chief.
The 1970s were a time that saw a lot of big fires in Brattleboro. In the age before the wide adoption of smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and automatic alarms, the fire department kept busy.
“We were going all over the place,” Barrett said. “I was assigned to the ladder truck, and the ladder truck went everywhere.”
Since Brattleboro was one of the few towns at the time that had such a vehicle, he went out on a lot of calls, both in-town and elsewhere in Windham County on mutual aid calls.
“And that thing was a convertible, and had no heat,” he recalled.
Being young and seemingly indestructible, Barrett never thought much about the risks of being a firefighter. But he was there for the Star Hotel fire in Bellows Falls in 1981, which claimed the lives of two firefighters there.
“Those are the times when it hits you, and you think, 'Wow, something can happen to you,'” he said.
Barrett worked his way up to captain of the call force's ladder crew. At the same time, he was doing seasonal work for the town's water department.
Remillard, who at the time was also was a call firefighter and worked at the water department, steered Barrett in that direction.
“I liked outside work and working with your hands,” Barrett said. “I was installing water mains and hydrants.”
He said that as a young man fresh out of high school, he was working several odd jobs, from working as a baker, to working at the post office, to building post-and-beam homes. He set that aside in 1979, when Barrett became a full-time firefighter.
A year later, a full-time opening came up at the town's wastewater treatment plant. Remillard encouraged Barrett to take it. He went back to on-call status with the fire department, something that several members of the Public Works Department did.
“I could have the best of both worlds doing that,” he said, adding that getting a full-time position with the DPW was hard to do back in the 1980s. “The wastewater plant job was the only one available.”
'A lot of what we do you don't see'
Barrett called his first day on the job at the wastewater treatment plant “a rude awakening, but I learned a lot.”
He said the plant was well run, but until you go to a wastewater treatment plant, “you have the attitude that you flush the toilet and say goodbye and don't think about where it goes. I didn't realize what I was getting into until I got there.”
Back then, he said, there was a bit of a stigma working for the DPW, but that changed over time.
People like Emery and Remillard fought for better pay and benefits for town employees. “They never got to enjoy the benefits of their work, but they paved the way,” said Barrett. “Now the training and professional requirements have increased, and the bar got higher and higher. Now, it's a pretty respected profession.”
When it comes to public works, Barrett said, “a lot what we do, you don't see, like cleaning the streets or cleaning the sewers. It's not very glamorous. But now, we get a lot more support from people.”
Barrett moved up the ranks quickly at the DPW. After a couple of years, he shifted from the wastewater plant back to the water department, where he later became a general supervisor in the water department. Subsequently, he became the utilities superintendent.
By the early 1990s, Barrrett was the supervisor of both the highway and utilities divisions. When Remillard became town manager in 1996, Barrett succeeded him as public works director.
The arc of Barrett's career intersects with members of another family who served the town: former Town Manager Corwin “Corky” Elwell, who served in that role from 1960 to 1989, and his son, outgoing town manager Peter Elwell, who will retire at the end of the year after seven years in that role.
“His dad hired me, and now I'm going out [into retirement] with his son,” he said.
Barrett credits both with a strategy that seems logical but had been executed inconsistently over the years: keeping a well-funded capital reserve account for big expenditures, like new dump trucks and excavating equipment.
The elder Elwell, he said, made sure the town had money set aside for big-ticket items, but over time, various financial issues forced the town to scrimp on appropriating money into the capital fund. It wasn't until Peter Elwell took the reins that the town got back into the habit of planning ahead.
“Peter felt it was important to re-establish that fund, and it is important,” said Barrett. “Everyone is benefiting already.”
Working amid changing technology
Another thing that has changed over four decades is technology. Barrett said improved technology has led to a smaller, but more-efficient and better-trained staff in the department.
Where the DPW office was paper-driven in the 1980s, everything is digitized now, and work orders can be tracked from the initial email to completion.
The water treatment plant runs off computers now, he said, “and can operate on its own, 24 hours a day.”
He said the heavy equipment is better - easier and safer to operate and more comfortable for the operators.
When he first started with the fire department, he said, he had to remember the number and location of every fire call box in town. Pagers were a big step up, and he was one of the first to have one.
“I still have the number from my first cell phone, the Bag Phone they gave me back in the '80s,” he said.
But even with 21st-century technology, the department still has to deal with infrastructure that dates back to the 19th century. But Barrett said new technology and construction techniques have allowed his crews to be able to reline old pipes without have to dig them out of the ground.
And the department is still struggling with a building from 1950 that was never designed for modern trucks and equipment that are far bigger than those built 70 years ago.
Tyler's biggest challenge, Barrett said, will be getting a new DPW facility built.
“Even though its old, the place is kept up,” he added. “But we could use a new garage.”
Their finest hour
Between the Brooks House fire and Tropical Storm Irene, 2011 has gone down in the history books as one of the most challenging years in Brattleboro's history. But it also was an example of how teamwork and cooperation among town departments made it possible for the town to bounce back quickly from two major disasters.
“We planned for it and trained for it, but never planned for anything that big,” said Barrett. “My main focus at the time was to get everything back in order. They were big disasters, but they were handled well. And the townspeople jumped in, too, like they always do when there's a crisis.”
Part of the reason why the DPW team handled the crises well, he said, was the constant drilling that prepared them for a possible mishap at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
“ We were fortunate to have this training, because [as a result] every person [working for the town] knew they had a job and knew what they had to do. So, when it happened, we were ready. We had a system in place to respond.”
With Irene, Barrett credited all the assistance that local contractors provided in helping to rebuild washed-out bridges and culverts.
“We had some local talent that knew what they were doing,” he said.
'The little park is one of my favorites'
There have been lot of big projects during Barrett's tenure - the upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant, new bridges such as Citizen's Bridge near Memorial Park and the Kyle Gilbert Bridge on Main Street, water line upgrades on Main Street, the creation of the Park Place/Linden Street/Putney Road traffic circle, and building a new water treatment plant.
But one of his favorite projects is one that is tucked away on Green Street - the restoration of Brosnahan Square.
The square was built in 1935 to honor the memory of John F. Brosnahan, an Army private from the Green Street neighborhood who died in combat in France in 1918, during World War I. Over the years, it had fallen into disrepair and neglect.
When an old stone retaining wall collapsed, Barrett saw the opportunity to fix not just the wall but the park.
“We got together with some artisans, including Peter Welch [a Guilford stonemason]. Peter did the design, and that's what you see there now,” said Barrett.
After Barrett put out the call to track down the missing bronze memorial sign, it turned up in someone's garage. An old iron lamppost that used to be on Main Street was installed.
“Yes, the big projects like the water treatment plant are the most important and are the things that drive the community,” he said. “but that little park is one of my favorites.”
No putting his feet up
Barrett, Elwell, Bucossi, and former police chief Michael Fitzgerald are part of a generation of Brattleboro natives who all came up through the ranks - and now are subsequently leaving the workforce - at roughly the same time.
Barrett said the one thing his fellow retirees all have in common is that they left their respective departments in better shape than when they first took charge.
He acknowledges the people who came before him in shaping his career.
“It was Dave Emery who encouraged me to take the [public works] director's job,” he said. So did former Police Chief Dick Guthrie.
“And when Dick Guthrie came back to the department, I told him, 'I used to run from you, now it's kind of nice to be running with you,'” Barrett said.
And he said that Remillard, whom Barrett called “one of the most hard-working, dedicated guys I know,” also deserves more credit than he's gotten for helping to shape the modern downtown.
The former town manager stepped down under duress after the emergence of financial irregularities, many relating to the construction of the Brattleboro Transportation Center in the early 2000s, which sent town finances into a tailspin.
Remillard “took a lot of heat for the Transportation Center, but you look at what makes downtown vibrant and why all the apartments are there, and it's because they're using the Transportation Center,” Barrett said. “It worked out to be a wonderful thing.”
Barrett is confident that Tyler will keep the public works department rolling along.
“I sought him out and it took me a couple of years to get him, but I just had that vision that he would be the right fit, and he truly is,” he said, describing his successor as “someone responsible, caring, and honest.”
“You want things done right,” Barrett said. “You don't like to do things twice.”
He is also happy that the department, like the town itself, is not as insular as it was when he was 17.
“It's nice to have a blend,” he said. “You need to have people from the outside, and new ideas, because that's how our community is - it was built up by people who move here. Vermont's nice and Brattleboro is a good community. I think we've done pretty well here, and that's why people keep coming.”
Barrett doesn't plan on putting his feet up in retirement. He said there's a lot of work to be done around the house, and he hopes to do some traveling with his wife, Helayne. He wants to get outdoors and ski, hike, golf, hunt, fish, and ride his motorcycle.
“I've got a lot of friends who are retired,” he said. “It's kind of like going back and being a kid again.”
The one thing he won't do is be a “sidewalk superintendent,” and look over the shoulders of his colleagues.
“I figure Dan is prepared, and I'll always be there for him in case he needs anything,” Barrett said. “But, now, I'll just be a taxpayer and an observer. I don't have a problem with stepping aside.”