The Recorder – ‘I’ve had my time’: Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts bids farewell after 40 year firefighting career

SHUTESBURY — Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter R. Tibbetts, a third-generation firefighter and 40-year veteran of the department, is hanging up his personal protective equipment and retiring from the force after a decades-long career that includes 28 years as a than chief.

Tibbetts has been considering retirement since 2018 after a triumphant show of support from townspeople ended a protracted contract negotiation that secured him a higher salary. His new contract, which gave him three more years in the department and an optional fourth, ended on Thursday, the last day of June.

“I always thought it would be the hardest thing to leave the department, but my time here is coming to a natural end – I’ve had my time, and it’s been almost too long,” he joked. in an interview at the fire station. this week. His last day was Thursday.

In addition to fire chief, Tibbetts also chairs the city’s cemetery commission, the Lake Wyola Advisory Committee and the Franklin County Emergency Communications System Oversight Committee — roles he won’t resign from in his twilight years.

Tibbetts describes the occupational hazards of the job with scientific precision – which carcinogens associated with smoke consumption most threaten the lives of combatants, how vehicle fires can be traced to the advent of lithium batteries and the popularity of cars hybrids and electrics susceptible to an increasing flammability cycle called thermal runaway, and the precise tanker capability needed to put out fires on Highway 202, where Quabbin’s tank is just out of reach.

Lightweight construction with newer, more combustible insulation, Tibbets said, has accelerated the growth of house fires — which years ago could last up to 30 minutes from the start of growth to flashover, before finally reaching the stage of decomposition – just a few minutes away.

But the work, he said, is as much about people, their losses and their survival as it is about the mechanisms of fire safety.

“We see people most often on the worst day of their life, which is work. Holidays, birthdays, they get thrown out the window when the pager goes off — you can never predict when people will need you,” Tibbetts said.

And the rate at which Shutesbury residents have needed their fire chief has increased dramatically in recent years.

Tibbetts noted the expansion of his role to include levels of surveillance, training and emergency medical response that did not exist when he joined the department at age 16. Back then, he said, “firefighters were firefighters.”

“We used to jump off the tractor and get on the truck,” he continued, a reality very different from the daily demands of contemporary fighters, who in small towns like Shutesbury, whose population hovers around of 1,200 people, respond to between 150 and 180 calls per year.

His increased responsibility paled in comparison to the department’s diminishing capacity – last year the chief issued a written open letter, a ‘request for help’, calling on community members to join the department as firefighters , and the staff shortage has not diminished. .

Not only will the department have to fill the post of fire chief, but the deputy chief is also vacant. The hourly pay and the sporadic, on-call nature of the work aren’t very appealing, Tibbets said, and the dangers of the job — not just the immediate risks of entering a burning building, but the long-term health risks terms associated with firefighting — are increasingly recognized.

Through tears, Tibbetts recalled the passing of former Shutesbury Fire Chief Alan Lego, his mentor, who died of a brain tumour.

On many occasions Tibbetts was not only the bearer but also the recipient of bad news and, although he never lost a member of his department in the line of duty, the emotional toll of being steadily witnessing the loss of scorched earth accumulates over a period of 40 years. career year – “fire is fire and death is death,” he commented.

When she retires, Tibbetts looks forward to savoring the time she has left with her octogenarian mother who suffers from dementia. After so many decades spent at the scene of tragedy after tragedy, his next decades will be about celebrating life.

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