Concord Fire Department Visit to New York City Ground Zero
Impact of September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack
Concord Fire Station, Walden Street
Interviewed July 3, 2002
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
A firehouse has a special close-knit culture. Living, eating together, sharing terrifying risks, it is a brotherhood of loyalty, depending upon one another in their work and for their lives. On September 11, 2001, the New York City Fire Department bore the brunt of the incomprehensible tragedy when Flight 11 on American Airlines and Flight 175 on United Airlines were hijacked and crashed like missiles into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. Those firefighters knew when they attempted to enter the towers that this was the worst thing they had ever faced. The image of firefighters going into the twin towers just as everyone else was desperately trying to leave has made an indelible impression. The number of firefighters that perished that day was 343. The members of Group 3, who went to New York City to show support for their brethren, those whose lives were taken on September 11 and those who continue to work through the wreckage at ground zero where fires continue to burn in the debris, are Captain Donald Prentiss, Lieutenant Billy Noke, Firefighters Sean Murphy, Marcus Jackson and Bill Haugh, along with Concord Fire Department chaplain, Father John Murray of St. Bernard's Church. They will share their experiences in New York City and also discuss Concord's Fire Department and its challenges.
Captain Donald Prentiss — I've been a member of the Concord Fire Department for 29 years this July and I'm 55 years old.
Firefighter Marcus Jackson — I've been a member of the Concord Fire Department for 11 Â½ years and I'm 32 years old.
Father John Murray — I'm the pastor at St. Bernard's in Concord and also the fire chaplain here at the fire department for three to four years now.
Bill Haugh — I've been with the Concord Fire Department for about 4 years and a firefighter for about 11 years, and I'm 47 years old.
Sean Murphy — I've been with the Concord Fire Department for about 3 years and a firefighter for 15 years, and I'm 35 years old.
Billy Noke — I've been a firefighter for about 16 years, and I'm 46 years old.
Captain Don Prentiss — We went as a group to New York City on November 9, 2001. Originally I didn't feel the need to go to New York City but once the question came up as to should we go down, I had to go. There was no question I was going to go whether we went down as a group or if I went down as an individual. It was at that moment I decided that I was going to go to New York City. The trip on the rail system was interesting because I had never done it before. I thought about going to New York and what we were going to see and do because when we originally started down there, we really didn't have a firm idea of what we were going to do other than we wanted to attend some of the memorial services for the fallen firefighters. Once we got to New York City, it was amazing that the people in New York City couldn't do enough for us. The train ride was free, the subway system was open up to us, people would applaud us as we walked down the sidewalks, they'd step aside, they'd hold doors open. I had one women come up and give me a hug and say thank you. Actually getting to ground zero was devastating, to say the least. The size of the area that was destroyed was incredible. When we were there, fires were still burning and we could see the equipment working. The equipment would move and the flames would erupt through the rubble. I'm glad I went. I'll never forget it. It seemed unreal and seemed like it couldn't happen.
Bill Haugh — I was drawn there for the same reasons as Don. Ever since the day of the attacks I felt I needed to do something. Emotionally like everyone else, we were all a wreck. We felt we needed to do something and that's what drew me to New York. They were brothers, and we knew what they were doing in the stairwells, helping people get out. Getting down there was an experience because as soon as you left the train system and got out on the street and walking around ground zero, you see people with masks on and you could taste the soot. The soot was falling on our shoulders and you could smell the smoke still burning. The looks on every day people walking down the street were just lost with the exception as to when we walked down the street, it gave them hope I suppose. It was someone they could connect with and that's why the applause and the hugs, and people wanted pictures with us. Getting into ground zero and getting to places where the public didn't get to was important to us. They did us a special favor by letting us down there. It was just like being in a memorial service. Taking a look at the buildings that were still standing and the heavy destruction and holes in the sides of buildings made it unreal. To realize that it was done intentionally and wasn't an act of God, that's what made it more difficult to absorb and to look at the piles still there and to realize there were still thousands of people in there that would never be found.
We were very angry. You know, your emotions really ran wild after September 11. I'd be driving anywhere and just start crying once you start thinking about it, and you'd get chills. It's like losing close friends. I think the thing that did it was it was such a brutal assault on our way of life, our freedom, and to lose all those firefighters was justâ€¦ It hit home. It took months and months and I don't think we're all over it yet. It's easier, we go along because we have to, but it was very difficult the first few months, to get through Christmas and the holidays.
Sean Murphy — One of the big feelings I had, and I thought about it a lot during and after, was I wasn't alive or around when Pearl Harbor happened, but it kind of felt like our Pearl Harbor for our generation. That's the only way I can describe it. I wasn't at the station the day it happened, but we ended up coming into the station and were just standing around watching the television with a total loss at to what you could do, and not knowing when it was going to end, hearing there was another plane going into the Pentagon and another one out in Pennsylvania that had gone down. I likened it to the movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still", because you could look up in the sky and there wasn't a thing flying anywhere. Being so close to Hanscom Field and to Logan Airport, there are constantly planes in the air, and there was nothing in the air. It was just sort of an eerie type of feeling. Like some of the other guys have said, you had to go down there. Even if it was just to go to one memorial service or one funeral or just to go down to the site because you were a firefighter knowing your brothers were still lost in that rubble, you had to go down just to be there. You couldn't do anything but just to be there to show your support for the rest of the National Association of Firefighters and the brotherhood that we belong to.
Marcus Jackson — When we were in New York we attended the funeral service for Captain Patrick Brown. It was intense. He was like a firefighter's firefighter. He did two tours in Vietnam, he was a black belt marshall artist, and they said he was real easy going and quiet, but you didn't bother anybody on his company. It seemed like a real tight knit group that he was a part of, and we could relate to that. There were thousands of people in front of St. Patrick's church that day. We were fortunate enough to get inside and there were still thousands outside on the street just waiting for the memorial to end. They never found his body. They had a helmet in place of that. It was an honor to be there. It's ironic that we ended up going that day, the rest of the guys waited for me to get back, and we all went down together. I felt like it was an honor to be there for us to get to his memorial service, and for him of all people. I can't even describe what it was — emotional, at times laughing when they were reminiscencing about him, and you knew that he was a good standup guy, and all his men spoke highly of him. That's the way any firefighter would want to be remembered. They want to try to live like he did as a firefighter and as a person.
Bill Haugh — I was just going to add to what Marcus said. They referred to Pattie Brown as a warrior because of the amount of rescues he did throughout his career. He had over 20 citations for bravery, Vietnam the same thing — two silver stars, it was an honor to be at that memorial for that gentleman. He was heard saying going into the building answering someone who said what are you doing going in there? He said, "Are you crazy, we've got a job to do." That's how he lived his life.
Father Murray — I was also there and I was honored to be there as I am always honored to be among firefighters. What so impressed me about the ceremony was the thousands of firefighters lined up five rows deep on either side of Fifth Avenue of all places and you could have heard a pin drop. Gangs of people behind the lines on the sidewalks and all the firefighters in any direction as far as you could see standing at attention as that funeral cortege got into place. By getting into the cathedral, we didn't even get a seat, we just got in, and stood there for a long, long time. Cardinal Egan spoke, the mayor spoke, the governor spoke, all his fellow firefighters, and it went on because everyone was so taken by this. It was just a very impressive and respectful send off for a person that made such a big impression on people's lives. Beyond that going to ground zero because we weren't supposed to be allowed to go down there, right to edge of this smoldering, burning wreck. I since have heard that it took years to build those buildings but it took 18 seconds for them to collapse and to see that and the rubble and the fires. But what really got to me were the firefighters themselves going back into that rubble trying to find their own, masks on, equipment over their shoulders, trudging down. They were told to go home, and they wouldn't go home. They just kept at it and at it because one of their own was there. I'll never forget that. Of all the things that were powerful that day, to me that was the most powerful because they wouldn't let one of their own go until they searched and found them. The shirt I had on that day I still cannot get clean. Whatever it was, the smoke and ashes and whatever, you just can't get it out. And those people were there days and days doing all that kind of work. It's very, very impressive.
Sean Murphy — I don't think many people realize how much the gear that a firefighter wears and carries weighs. When you put all that gear on, you're talking about 40-45 pounds of gear. That's a lot to throw on top of somebody. From some accounts by the time these guys got up to the 30th, 35th and 40th floors, lot of them had their jackets off and they were carrying their gear just so they wouldn't overheat and some actually had chest pains on the way up. It's unusual even in a high rise building from the things I've read about. Usually you'll catch an elevator to a floor below or a couple of floors below when you attack a fire like that. Civilians are told not to use elevators and they shouldn't, but firefighters usually take control of the elevator and use it with a firefighter key, but no elevator was working due to the massive damage up around the 80th floor, and I think the 100th floor on the other building. So those guys had a lot of work cut out for them. They were only halfway up to where the damage was and already they were exhausted. From all accounts, they kept going and helped a lot of people out. If it weren't for those 343, firefighters that number would probably be two or three times the amount of dead. I think it was over 3000.
Bill Haugh — I think a lot of those firefighters realized they weren't going to come out. But what are you going to do, that's your job. It's just like a soldier going to battle, that's your job. You do your job and do it the best you can. I think a lot of them knew they weren't going to come out but everyone was depending on them. If you were up on the 80th floor or above where the heavy fire was or you were stuck in an elevator, you were hoping a firefighter would come and get you. A lot of them knew they weren't going to make it, but that was the last line of defense.
Billy Noke — I've gone to a couple of seminars where I had the honor to listen to a couple of current deputies from New York City and one retired deputy who talked about what happened. Their take on it was these guys when they were going into the building knew they weren't going to be putting the fire out. They were just going in to try to make as many rescues as they could. Most of them didn't know the extent of the damage the building had sustained. I don't believe many of them ever thought the building was going to come down. Looking back on it as a lesson learned, these two buildings are unique to anything else that is in New York City. It's all light weight steel bar construction and the outer walls were bearing walls and then the center core, so once it started to collapse, it came down in 18 seconds. The biggest pieces of anything were some ribbons of the steel decking that they poured the light weight concrete over. I guess most buildings are built as a steel skeleton, 30 feet on center. This building had a core and then the outer walls and it was like a 30 or 40 foot span holding these light weight steel bar joists with two bolts at either end. I found that to be interesting that they would ever allow a building like this to be built. There is one other building like that — the Sears Tower is built the same way.
Marcus Jackson — I was just going to add to what Bill was saying. That's our job, that's what we do. Our mentality is it's all or nothing. You do it until it's over. If something like that, God forbid, would ever happen again, you'd probably find another 343 guys that would go in there without hesitation, if they're going to save that many lives. Like Bill said, that's our job, that's what we do, and that's what you do first. You don't put your family behind or anything, you just don't think about it. You just do what you have to do, period, that's it.
Father Murray — When we were at ground zero, I saw a figure in the rubble with a coat on that said Chaplain. I went over to him and told him I was a chaplain too. We only had a short time to talk. He had not left there at all because they kept calling him when they found something else. He just stayed there. Father Judge was the first death that they recorded, so they said, you know it was God's plan, he was the first to die that meant he was up there in heaven to welcome all the others who came after him. There's an irony to that, but there's also a truth to that.
Bill Haugh — Maybe some people might overlook a chaplain's importance, but it's a welcome sight if you're on the scene and you look over your shoulder and see Father Murray. It's nice to have him. The thing I took away from everything after the sermon the following week was the term, "never give up". We've kind of adopted that, at least I have. So when things are tough like what the guys in New York went through, just remembering what Father Murray said makes it easier.
When we came back, I wasn't sure it was over. I had that feeling on September 11. We were off during the day, but we came in that night not knowing if I was going to go back home the next day because they had no idea if there were going to be more planes or if we were still going to be under attack that night. After an emotional day watching the news, coming to work I wasn't sure it was over. If something had happened in Boston for instance, I'm sure we'd be one of the departments that would have to be called in on a major event like that. So we had the uneasy feeling leaving home, seeing your families. When am I going to be home again or am I going to be home again? I never question whether I'm coming home when I go to work every day, but that day I questioned it. Am I going to come back and when am I going to come back.? So it was kind of tough coming to work, and then laying in bed. Of course nobody wanted to go to bed, we were all up pretty late. I could hear all the beds squeaking during the night with people shifting their weight because you knew they weren't sleeping. I remember hearing a jet and thankfully it was probably a military jet patrolling the skies. That first day and that first two weeks were tough coming to work.
Don Prentiss — After September 11 we had the anthrax scare. It was something that we hadn't specifically trained for, but we had been trained to work with different contaminated materials. The anthrax situation was hysteria, I think. Nobody knew what was going on. The number of practical jokes out there, the talcum powder on the envelope. It brought everybody's awareness up to a point where we had a lot of calls that probably weren't necessary but we still have to respond and treat them as legitimate calls until proven otherwise. So it was a difficult period for us because it was something we were doing almost on a day-to-day basis, but really haven't done that much of prior to 9/11. I think my entire job and everything I do as a firefighter has taken on a new awareness, how much more attuned to what they went through and what could happen. We were getting constant information from the FBI and news media as to new problems and situations. All kinds of information about different prisoners of this Al Qaeda organization that leads them to believe that this 4th of July could be another attack so there is a heightened state of alert. I find I'm much more diligent in what I look at and how I look at it. Like some of the historical sites in Concord, I look at them differently now.
There's a lot more information and everything that comes in isn't just looked at and put in a pile. Everything that we're getting now in the way of information from every medium is being scrutinized. Anything they feel we should be aware of, we're getting alerted to either by e-mail or FBI material that comes through to the department.
Billy Noke — I just wanted to say that I think the Massachusetts Dept. of Fire Services from the beginning with the envelopes in the mail jumped on that pretty early, and they activated all the hazmat teams in the state, and they rather quickly developed a program down to our level where we could open up the envelopes safely, assuming most of them were low risk. If there was a high probability of something being wrong, we would have brought the hazmat team out, but I think for the average citizen in Concord that got a letter with no return address or a letter from someone they didn't know, the Department of Fire Services developed a procedure for us to use. I think it worked well. Just to explain the hazmat team, that's those that deal with hazardous materials. Each of the six fire districts in the state has their own hazmat team and it is made up of members of the individual departments who are trained to the hazmat technician level in most instances. For a while they have some support members that are not trained to the technician level that help out with support functions.
Don Prentiss — We worked together with the police department on the terrorism prevention. It was a joint program where at one point as the threat lessened, the police department was handling all those particular types of calls. The fire department also went through some training in the support area as how to decontaminate individuals or large groups of people. There are some simple procedures using large amounts of water.
Sean Murphy — I was on duty a couple of different times when we had suspicious packages and/or letters brought to the station. It wasn't unusual to see a couple of individuals who had been trained to the hazmat technician level out back behind the department here suited up in their hazmat gear and they'd open the letter out there depending on the criteria. Each letter that someone received in town had to meet a certain type of criteria for a certain level of inspection and/or response. If it called for somebody in a hazmat suit, two of our guys were trained to hazmat technician level, Capt. Curren and Capt. Catrol???, and they were suited up in a fully contained suit covered head to toe and they would open the letters back there and inspect the letters. If there was any type of powder inside of it, they'd bag them and then they send them off to a lab to be tested. All those letters that were found in the town of Concord all came back negative as far as testing for any type of anthrax or anything like that.
Billy Noke — I just wanted to add that I don't believe anything was found in the state, like some 780 envelopes. That was good.
I wasn't here earlier when you were talking about New York City, but I have to say that all the people we met in New York were great to us, even people on the subways. People were thanking us and they were very appreciative of us being there. I'd never been to New York City before and it was nice. It was a good experience in that way.
Culture of the Firehouse —
Marcus Jackson — We're like brothers here. This department is broken down into four groups and each group has its own personality. We're in group 3, and we're a tight-knit group. There are five guys here and it's like having four brothers here, and the guys in the other station are probably cousins. We eat together, we joke around together — it's good to come to work. It's a job that you look forward to. Even on calls we work together, the chemistry is right and it's a great experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything else.
Bill Haugh — We call ourselves brothers but I truly feel it's a closer relationship than brothers. I guess we say brothers because there is not a stronger term, but I feel I'm close to these guys. I know everything about them and a lot about their personal families, their wives and kids. We know each other inside out. We need to have that because if you're in a tight situation, you need to know that they're going to be behind you and help you out. We literally, even though it doesn't happen every day, trust each other with our lives. I think it's tighter than brothers.
Don Prentiss — I think the relationship develops and grows just because of the sheer need that we have to depend on each other. We have to know that when you turn around, your buddy is going to be right behind you or right beside you or he's going to be in front of you. He supports you and you support him. It's an absolutely necessity. I think that develops a strong bond.
Bill Haugh — Just to add, even though we may be happy a lot of the time, we have our times when we disagree and we argue. But with us we get it out on the table pretty quick if something is bothering us, and move on. Someone has to help me or I have to help somebody to get through the day, then that's what we do.
Billy Noke — I'd just like to say that in the past, we've proven our loyalty to each other. There's been a couple of times when guys have had problems in their families. One of the guy's wife had cancer and another guy needed an operation. They asked for some time or we were approached by one of the other members to donate some time and I think in both cases like within six hours, there were three months worth of shifts signed up for, swaps that didn't need to be paid back. We truly do help each other. We fight with one another, but when the chips are down, we're always there for one another. I've often heard it said, just the culture around the firehouse, we know what makes each other tick, and we know what ticks each other off.
Sean Murphy — One of the strong examples of how close you get with guys here is we had a firefighter who recently came on the job and within three months of being on the job, he broke his leg when he was off duty. He didn't have enough sick time. So what happened all the guys here in the department worked shifts for him for three months. As soon as you come on this department, you realize that you're in for the long haul. Guys take care of each other and you look out for each other. You harass each other, you joke with each other, you eat with each other — it's a great support system. Some calls are tough. Some calls are real tough. I'm not ashamed to admit there are a quite a few calls that bother me. But I get the support. You can talk to anyone in the group, you can talk to Father Murray, the chaplain, and you've got a great support system here in the department. We all take care of each other and it shows on the bottom end when you see the guys, and everyone's got the smile on their face when they come to work. They enjoy working here. We have a good time. We have a tough job but we enjoy doing it.
Don Prentiss — Some of the situations we go through are very tough. I've gone through different medical situations and fire situations where it's a friend or a member of my family and it makes it especially tough, but as you grow and mature through the department and the more situations you get involved in, you develop a certain way within. What I'm trying to say is that I've learned to deal with tough situations on my own level, but it's great to have the support of the guys in the department or in the group.
My grandfather and father were both firefighters. My grandfather as a boy grew up in the Wright Tavern. His grandparents were the innkeepers and he worked as a young man on the on-call fire department. At that time the fire station was at the end of Independence Court. And my father as a young man spent 22 years in the department. My grandfather had 53 years on the department. I'm just entering my 29th year this July.
Bill Haugh — I think to me at least, you learn to appreciate life a little bit more than the average guy on the street. You see death happen suddenly sometimes. Sometimes you see death in some of the older folks so it kind of makes you appreciate life and enjoy each day because you don't know literally what will happen.
Sean Murphy — After doing this job for so many years, you learn to always say I love you before you leave the house. You never want one of those days where you leave the house and you don't say I love you to your wife and kids, you hug your kids a little tighter and you make sure you give the kiss good-bye all the time. That's what I do in my home. There is that slight chance that something could happen on the job. You do run into these calls, and they're not very frequent, but there are calls that go on on a regular basis that every decision you make from your training can either contribute to or take away from the possibility of this person surviving that call. But you don't think of it that way as you're doing it. Your training kicks in and you just do what you're supposed to do and hopefully you've done it right over the years. At that point it comes together and you can save a life. That's one of the greatest rewards of this job is being able to save a life -- when you talk to a person afterwards or get a letter from their parents if it's a child or teenager. We get thank you letters. They are on the board all the time here at the station. Thank you for helping my son, or thank you for helping my mom, thank you for putting out the fire, thank you for saving our house, and that means the world to a lot of the guys here in the department. Then on the other end when you can't save people, you have to understand that. The first couple of times its hard. People don't realize that you can't save everybody. When I first came on this job and you were taught CPR and taught to be an EMT, we thought you could go out and save everybody, and that's not the case. You realize very quickly that the reality of the job is that you're going to see a lot of people die over a 20 or 30 year career and there's not much you can do about it.
Bill Haugh — 50% to 60% of our calls are medical related such as automobile accidents. My third day on the job here, I went to an explosion where the godfather to one of my sons was killed. It does have its moments. I know we've said it before but I can't say it enough about having Father Murray here with us. It helps us, and it helps the family to get through out.
Father Murray — And, I have to add that it helps me. I get a great deal more than I ever give to the department. The care and devotion they have for each other. You don't think of that when you see a firefighter with his gear on and you don't think that beneath that is a human being, heart and soul, mind and emotions, they're brothers, fathers, relatives and friends, you don't think of that, they're just doing their job.
Don Prentiss - There are 35 people in the department counting the Chief, the Deputy Chief and secretary. There are 32 full-time firefighters divided into four groups of 8. That's been that way since 1956. And I think that was because of a tragic situation that they lost someone. The town decided it was time to have a sizable full time department. The town has grown three-fold in the past 50 years. I've seen a change from basically an agricultural community to, I don't know, an equivalent to Rodeo Drive in California because it's a pretty pricey town now. And that means very few of your department can afford to live here. I think there are only 4 or 5 of us that live in town. Some of us the only reason we're here is because we got established when we were younger back when prices were still considered reasonable.
Bill Haugh - That's just not Concord either. All the surrounding towns are pricing people out of town. It's not just unique to Concord, so as a result you get people who are further out toward Rt. 495 and commute. I guess that's what you define as blue-collar workers that live further away from the city and further away from Concord.
Don Prentiss - There are two correctional institutions, two boarding schools and dormitories, three large nursing home type complexes plus a major hospital that services 14 other communities so the demands on the department are much greater than probably some surrounding towns.
Bill Haugh - Not to mention the highway that divides Concord as well. Thousands and thousands of cars commute through this town each day. Then you have the waterways - the rivers, the ponds. There are a lot of people in and around this town.
Don Prentiss - We also have the railroad. As a boy I can remember counting 120 or 150 freight cars on a single train. We don't see that number today but I understand it is slowly increasing. That is another demand on the department. I can remember as a boy going to a number of different train wrecks in Concord.
There are funding programs where the state gives money to the communities that have prisons but if that money is not there and they call us because they have a situation, we're still going to respond. It's our job so we have to do it.
Billy Noke - We get called a couple of times a week on medical calls. They use us for that. Obviously there are not that many fires but I would say at least twice a week and sometimes as much as 10 times a week we can be at one of those prisons or at one of the state facilities.
Don Prentiss - We also have the airport. There is a glide path over Concord in taking off and landing at Hanscom and the air traffic has increased so there is another potential situation for us. With 32 men we feel we are short of men. We have four 8-man shifts but when the budget gets tight, we drop down to as few as 7, and that leaves just two men on one of the pumps which you should have 3 or 4 plus an officer. That's under NFPA standards which the town has adopted. But when it becomes a budget issue or a dollar issue, they tend to turn away from it. We're unionized, and we just negotiated a new three-year contract with the town.
Billy Noke - I think the town recognizes they need more men. But in today's economy where is the money going to come from to take care of that. As a hobby, I'm always looking at other departments and looking at what they do for runs. Comparing the two engines that operate out of here to other city departments, we would be in the top 1/3 as far as run volume goes. For instance, I was just looking at Portland, Maine last night. There are two engines that work in Portland that do more runs than us, and that would be either engine 43 or engine 48 and there are 7 engines underneath them. And to give you an idea area-wise, you take the City of Waltham or the City of Lowell in square mileage area, I would say Concord is at least their size. They have 180-man departments. We have a 32-man department. The city of Boston is twice the size of Concord and they have 1200 men on duty. Granted they have more people to protect but just as an example area wise. We have some long runs here in town. If we're going out to the Carlisle line at the end of Silver Hill Road, it's a 10-minute run for us.
Bill Haugh - It's just easier for people to say we don't need as many firefighters because they don't see us every day on a main street working on putting fires out. Firefighters kind of get pushed to the back for funds. Teachers and different departments in town come to the forefront because that's what the public wants. But I think if the public understood that if there is a fire at their house and we're running short, potentially two men could pull in an engine, one guy has to run the pump, and so you've got one guy to support a hose line or to make a rescue for the first couple of minutes. And, minutes matter quite a bit in a fire. Within three or four minutes you can go from a single room fire to a whole house potentially being involved. People just need to understand.
Sean Murphy - That happened this past year. We had three structural fires at the same time in town. One of the engines pulled up to a fire on Everett Street. It was an attic fire, the house had been struck by lightning, and the rest of the crews were out at different fires. We were running short. We had two guys on the engine, so the engine operator who usually stays with the engine to regulate the water pressure and make sure you have water to protect yourself as well as put out the fire had to put the engine in pump and run into the burning building with the captain, so there was no one minding the fire apparatus itself for a while. It was just running on its own. That's the danger of working with so few men. It's not an occurrence that happens every day or every other day but it does happen and it puts the life of every firefighter in this town in jeopardy and its put the life and safety of the citizens in jeopardy. But we do the best possible job we can with the amount of guys we have like anything else in this budget and this economy, it's do more with less. Right now we have about 3000 runs a year, and it doesn't show any signs of decreasing. In fact it shows signs of increasing and that's what we have to do. So we have to increase our size and staff in the department to keep up with the run volume.
Bill Haugh - Just to add to the story about Everett Street, the captain was upstairs at the end of the hose line and the other firefighter made three separate trips up three flights of stairs to get tools to do something that the captain requested. If that call ever turned sour with the captain up there by himself, and a guy running up and down stairs three times, would he have been able to get him out, we don't know. But he should never be faced with that situation, we should have enough men to do the job.
Sean Murphy - I was the second crew in on that fire. I had come back and gotten a ladder truck and gone to Everett Street. We had called in mutual aid companies into another fire on Virginia Road and I believe Hanscom came out there, and there was a third fire in West Concord. But the fire on Everett Street, I threw a ground ladder to the attic window. I weigh 165 lbs and you put 45 lbs worth of gear on and I'm up over 200 lbs. I ran up the stairs because I couldn't get in contact with the captain on his radio, so he said he needed a chain saw. So I ran back downstairs, got a chain saw and ran back up the stairs, and in a matter of 15-20 minutes you're exhausted. You run up four flights of stairs with 45 lbs of gear on, you don't realize the amount of stress that puts on a man's body. It's a lot of work.
Don Prentiss - We're beginning to be spread pretty thin at times. And more so than ever we're calling on mutual aid from other communities. That's the other problem that can arise is that you get a mutual aid engine company coming in and they may not know exactly where they're going. Some of the houses are quite a distance off the road and it would be easy for them to miss the driveway. We're given certain information when we respond to a certain call or a certain area in town as to where hydrants are located, and other information such as medical problems, or somebody is confined to bed, but the mutual aid engine company may not get it. There is a lot of information we have to have before we go out the door. Where we are spread thin, mutual aid engine companies don't always get that same information or are that familiar to the town so their response time doubles and triples in those situations.
Father Murray - It works the other way around too. Concord provides mutual aid to other communities. Like Lincoln doesn't have a ladder truck so if they have a situation that requires a ladder, they expect Concord to show up with the ladder.
Don Prentiss - If we're in Lincoln with the ladder truck and there's nobody here, the engine in West Concord can respond to district 1 but they are also going to rely on mutual aid to fill the gaps. But in a serious storm or some natural disaster or even a terrorist attack, all the departments will be stretched to the max and we just may not have that additional help.
Marcus Jackson - We'll call in the off duty help but it still takes time because many of us can't live in Concord, so we're traveling in from 25 miles away.
Bill Haugh - It just seems we're using mutual aid more as a rule than the exception and that's what we depend on. As a department we should be able to handle a room and content fire with the men we should have employed or on for that day. We should be able to handle that, and if we get hung up, then the mutual aid company can cover our station. But it just seems now we're using them for anything. If we strike a false alarm, mutual aid will come in for a fire and we don't know always know what you're going to get when mutual aid comes as to how many guys are going to be on the truck. We know how many guys are supposed to be on the truck but if that town is running short, you don't know what you're going to get. It's a different group of guys. That's the problem as I see it, we're using it too much. As a result, I think some of the towns might say oh, Concord's calling us again. If we're calling them for calls that we really don't need them for, that's taxing their system as well.
Don Prentiss - Every year we use mutual aid more and more and more.
Marcus Jackson - Especially for the ambulance. The ambulance is quite high. I think for the last 24-hour shift mutual aid was in two maybe three times because of back-to-back calls.
Sean Murphy - Let's put it this way, mutual aid is a small Band-Aid on a very large wound.
Don Prentiss - In the 29 years I've been on the department we did more fire calls than medicals, but slowly over the past 29 years that's changed. We've gone from fewer fire calls, and I think that's due to new building codes and regulations, stricter inspection, smoke detectors, problems are alerted to much quicker, they call us and we come in and take care of the situation. But the amount of time that the ambulance responds has doubled and tripled in the last 29 years.
As to the fire signal system, we're in the process of doing away with the Gamewell system which is a mechanical device that would tap out a specific number and that would give us the location to a radio master box. It does it with a radio signal. It's a lot more versatile but it tests with us every day. If it misses a test, we're notified and then we can notify the owner of that particular building that their system had some sort of mechanical problem and they need to have it addressed. It takes a big responsibility off the town because it's very expensive and the system we have is very antiquated and hasn't been maintained properly. So it takes a big expense off the town to upgrade and replace that system.
Bill Haugh - Maybe the easiest way to understand that is the old system is a telegraph and the new system is a radio with an antenna at the end of the box and it transmits a radio wave length. And also some of the homes are connected in over the telephone lines to what's referred to as a central station alarm (ADT or Pinkerton) or something like that where a fire alarm or burglar alarm goes off in your home, it might call South Carolina. That might be where it's answered, who knows. But ADT is over in Bedford and then they call our dispatch center and let them know what's going on and they dispatch the appropriate response.
Billy Noke - There is kind of a saying in the fire service, I wouldn't say 100% of it applies to Concord but they say "a hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress".
Sean Murphy - I just want to say and most of the guys feel that the type of guys that are on this job are good hard-working family men that do a good job. They are the type of guys who would never want to be sitting behind a desk for 8 to 10 hours a day. This is what we love doing and we enjoy the job and we wouldn't think of doing anything else for a living.
Marcus Jackson - I've been full time here for a little over 13 years and I can honestly say I've never once woke up in the morning and said, "Oh, I gotta go to work." I wouldn't change this job for anything, I really wouldn't. And I think a lot of the guys feel that way.
[One-on-one interview with Captain Donald Prentiss who grew up in Concord with his memories of the town and how it's changed]
Donald Prentiss - I'm fast approaching my 56th birthday and just thinking back to my childhood in Concord. I caddied at Concord Country Club. Nashawtuc Country Club at the time was still Andy Boy farms. I was thinking of the different programs I went through as a child like the Red Cross swimming at Walden Pond and the junior socialables at the Girl Scout House. I made a lot of friendships then that I still have today. Growing up I always had an interest in horses and I used to work for Nick Rodday when he was at Victory Lee Stables, which he leased from Mary Ogden Abbott on Sudbury Road. When he moved up on Virginia Road and established Elm Brook Farm, I used to work for him quite a bit. My father was sort of semi-retired and downsized his company, so I spent a lot of time working for Nick Rodday doing sleigh rides and hay rides through town and plowing sidewalks with horses. If Nick Rodday didn't need me, I'd work for Lawrence Kenney. I remember once we were plowing and I came by the Colonial Inn and when I finished my route I saw Lawrence's plow out in front of Colonial Inn but no horse. So my assumption was he may have had problems with the harness and walked the horse back to the barn and come back later to get the plow. But it seems as though Loring Grimes who was the innkeeper at the time, unhitched the horse and walked him down behind the Colonial Inn. But, when Lawrence came out and saw his horse was gone, he saw the footprints in the snow so he walked down and brought the horse back around and right through the Colonial Inn and right into the gentlemen's bar. I finished my route and took my horse and plow back down to his farm. He showed up a few hours later.
Seeing the whole farms get cut up and developed is sort of disheartening. It was an agricultural community. I'm sure my father and grandfather had the same thoughts as they were growing up. I told you earlier my grandfather grew up in the Wright Tavern. His grandparents ran it. His name was Otis Penniman. I guess the First Parish Church had bought the tavern at some point and they asked him to operate it which he did for a number of years. When my great-grandfather passed away, my great-grandmother and my grandfather moved in there. I believe she worked there and lived there at the same time, as the story goes. But I'm sure the story has changed from generation to generation and parts of it got lost.
When my grandfather married, he moved to West Concord and bought a house on Commonwealth Avenue and that's where my father grew up. My grandfather's name was Robert Merrill Prentiss and my father was Wendall Robert Prentiss. My grandfather was an electrician in town, one of the first if not the first. But he also ran what he called a jitney, one of the first cars in town. I'm not sure he was ever licensed with the town but I guess he would take certain people into Boston and bring certain people out at different times of day and night. So it was one of the things he did to support himself as well as being an electrician. I often go into some of the older homes in Concord as a firefighter for whatever problem and I'm always looking at the electrical system and wondering if my grandfather probably did this. A couple of times I found his business card taped inside the panel.
Like I say I've seen a lot of change and I'm not sure they are all for the better, but everything changes. But I do miss the stables and the horses and the farms and the cows. It wasn't anything to be delayed driving through town because there was a tractor pulling a hay wagon in front of you, or at times some horses. It was a different pace of life then. I remember the old Middlesex Bus Line that used to come through town that replaced the trolley. I used to do odd jobs for Gladys Clark up on Lowell Road. My brother worked for her brother Ben Clark, who had a landscape business.
Growing up here was neat. We used to get into rural areas of town where some of the larger older homes were, the estates, and our idea was to see how the other half lives. All those areas have been developed and some of the older homes are gone. Just like looking through your book, Strawberries and Streetcars, it brings back memories. I walk through the Milldam and just wonder what the town was like when my grandfather was a boy.
I've seen a lot of changes in town. Woolworth's moved from Main Street to Walden Street, and the A&P moved out. My mother used to take me down as a boy and they had a little mechanical horse out front and for a dime you could ride. If I was real good, she'd take me to Sally Ann's and buy me some sort of a treat. Sally Ann's has been there for a long time too but with many different owners.
I can remember seeing some of the old homes being torn down to expand the municipal parking behind what used to be Woolworth's. Ed Bartlett who was a cabinet maker had a shop back there. I remember going in there as a boy. It was interesting to see the old equipment and cabinets. Middlesex Ford was kind of interesting. There was a transition there from horse and wagon to automobile.
Dr. McDonald had saved some old advertising signs from being thrown away and he had them stored in his garage. After he passed away, his widow through someone else got them to me and I've got them stored, but my intent to do with them is either to put them in the gun house or give them to the appropriate people. As far as the historical value, I'm not sure if there's much, but they are an old part of Concord.
I've been with the Concord Independent Battery for 36 years and I think I've only missed two April 19 parades. I was a cub scout and a boy scout and we used to march in the 4th of July parade that they don't have any more which is sad. But on the 4th of July our whole neighborhood on Woodland Road used to get together and do a real traditional clambake with the wood pit fire and stone. They'd go into Boston the day before and buy bushels of seaweed and lobster and corn and potatoes and all that was piled up and covered with a tarp. Acorn Ridge was the other road down Old Marlboro Road, and the two neighborhoods used to get together and have this great New England clambake and afterwards everyone would go over to Lincoln for the fireworks. Concord hasn't had fireworks for a lot of years. They brought them back for the town's birthday, and I think they should do it every year. Maybe it should be initiated again.