Richard Ryan
Retired Fire Chief
275 Annursnac Hill Road

Age 62

Interviewed November 29, 1995

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Chief Ryan

One of the requirements when you became a fire fighter or even a call fire fighter in Concord was that you had to live in town. I started in 1956 as an auxiliary fire fighter. We no longer have auxiliary fire fighters, but back then we had the civil defense which had three different groups -- auxiliary police, auxiliary fire and communications. At one time we had 20 auxiliary fire fighters. That is no longer in existence. There is just not the interest at all today.

The auxiliary fire fighter supplemented the call-man and career fire fighters on large scale fires. We had two trucks. We had a heavy duty reserve truck and a pumper. Those we trained on. If there was a large scale fire, we were never allowed in the building. We weren't that thoroughly trained to do what the career fire fighters did, but we helped out at the scene, outside the building, manning hose, and after the fire was knocked down, we were allowed in to overhaul and place salvage covers over the furniture and that type of thing.

I was on the auxiliary force for about seven years and was moved up to a call fire fighters position on 3/1/63. I was a call fire fighter for two years when an opening came in for a career fire fighter. I was appointed to that position on 4/25/65.

I always thought the auxiliary and the call positions were great because it gives someone a chance to get in and see actually what fire fighting is all about without involving too much time out of your life. If you found you liked it, you could get involved in training for career fire fighting at the Mass Firefighters Academy.

When I started in 1956, we had eight men on duty at all times. Ironically that is what we are running with today. Matter of fact, 70% of the time we run with only seven. We no longer have the staff we had years ago because one, the auxiliary department is no longer in existence; the call department was at one time 20 people and got moved back to 16 when I became a call fire fighter. Today it's down to eight and there are only six of those positions filled. The call fighter is like a part time job. Today so much training has to be given to each fire fighter. You have to be certified and it takes a lot of time and it is difficult for someone to work a regular job and try to get in all this training time. The other reason is the makeup of the town of Concord. It is basically a white collar work force, and people are not interested in this type of work. Today with all the new laws you are not allowed to just take the people from the town, you have to open it up to everybody. That's why today, two-thirds of the career fire fighters live out of town. There is a requirement in the contract that they must live within a 15 mile radius, border to border, which could mean as much as 25 miles from a fire station to their house. So in a large scale fire, we call off duty people back in to help the eight men that are on duty. Just imagine the time it takes off-duty firefighters to come 15-25 miles away at a time. We really don't have the protection we had years ago.

We have in the fire department a preplan or running card file for every street in the town. We are preplanned up to ten alarms. If you go to an emergency and it's a large building or a commercial building and it's something we know we can't handle, we go to a second alarm which brings in more equipment and more manpower from another town and our own backup equipment. If not sufficient, we go to a third and so on to ten alarms where you get more equipment and manpower from other towns. What street or what area of the town the fire occurs dictates what community will come to assist. Of course, we try to get help from the closest to that location if we can. If the situation requires more, we go to a fire district task force.

Back when I started we had open cabs on the trucks. That idea way back was basically to be used on a ladder truck so the man driving the truck could spot the ladder. It was a hydraulic aerial ladder on a turntable right behind the driver's seat. That was fine when it was good weather, but in cold weather you were actually half frozen and could hardly move when you arrived at the fire scene. But that was the way those trucks were built. At that time for some reason or other, it carried over onto the engine companies and they were open cabs also. That differs greatly from the apparatus today. Also we had people who would be standing on the back step going to a fire. Today everybody has to be enclosed in a cab with a roof on it and wear seat belts. So that's a big difference.

Back then starting the supply line from a water source, which feeds the attack pumper located in front of the fire, the largest hose at that time was 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Then it increased to 3 inches, and today we have 4 & 5-inch diameter hose that has little or no friction loss with the water. When you pump water from a water hole or hydrant to a truck down the street, water acts like electricity, the farther it goes the less pressure or current it has. But in the large diameter hose you don't have the friction loss that the smaller diameter hose has, so it's been a big improvement. Today we have 4-inch supply lines and 5-inch in some trucks. We attack the fire with smaller hand lines. They have automatic nozzles on them. Before the pump operator had to figure out how many lengths of hose he had off and figure out the friction loss between the nozzle and the pump and regulate his pump to give proper pressure at the nozzle. Today we have automatic nozzles that the man on the nozzle can regulate the pressure.

At one time we used to fight house fires with what we called booster hose, which really was a hose that was normally used on grass fires and woods fires. Then they went to 1 1/2, now we use 1 3/4 hose that operates the same way as if we had a 2 1/2 inch hose. It is a lot easier to move around with one man with the same results. We also have the 2-inch hose that we use in certain situations. So there have been a lot of improvements in hose.

Aerial ladders reach greater heights today. When I came on, the ladder was a 65-foot steel ladder. Today we have a E1 (standing for Emergency One, the name of the manufacturer) aerial ladder and it extends to 110 feet. Quite a difference. People ask why do we need such a height in a small town like this where we don't have buildings that high. It isn't always the height, it's the reach. You can only get so close to certain buildings and the 110 feet really helps you get up to a roof or into six-story buildings. With the 65 feet aerial, we were really limited.

We also have self-contained breathing apparatus today. When I first came on, we used to have an all- purpose mask which you would put on so you wouldn't inhale all the toxic fumes in a fire. Those were fine if you had 16% oxygen in the air, but when you went below ground you had problems. Today we use self-contained breathing apparatus so we bring the air with us. We don't try to filter out the fumes in the atmosphere like those other masks did. We can go into basements and tunnels and so forth with the new breathing apparatus. We have two different size tanks today -- 30-minute tanks and 60-minute tanks. The 30-minute tank is a routine one that we normally use at fires. If it is something pertaining to a hazardous material, we go to a 1-hour or 60-minute tank which gives you more time.

The turnout gear today came from space experimentation. The astronauts use the fire protective suit that was designed for them. From that the fire service developed protective turnout clothing worn by every fire fighter. On top of that, the work clothes that they wear underneath the turnout clothing is also of fire retardant material, so they are well protected. They also have a personal alert device that is hooked to their belt, and when they go into a fire, they just have to flip a switch. As long as they keep moving inside the building, we know they are all right, but if something happens to them like falling through a floor or down a stairwell or pass out or get hit with a timber and are stationary for any more than 30 seconds, that alarm will go off at which time we will have our people go in, locate him and get him out.

The computer has changed our operations also. We started by putting computers in both our stations that are hooked into the dispatch center. Four of our people, one of each of the four groups, were especially trained as trainers in computers. After completing the training, they taught each of the individuals in their respective groups. It helps us immensely because first of all 911 and enhanced 911 came into play and with that any time anyone calls for help, it goes into our dispatch center and it clocks in where this call is coming from. In our computers we'll know exactly where that house is located, and when the captain in station one or the lieutenant in station two get the location, the computer printer will give them an informational sheet telling them where the house is located, the location of the nearest fire hydrant to it, as a matter of fact the nearest three hydrants to it, if a person in the family is handicapped, if somebody is using gunpowder, etc. Today there are many citizens interested in the minutemen groups and they make their own musket charges and they store black powder in their basements. Also, if it is a commercial building, what kind of business and what kind of material do they have on the premises. So we have all that information and the officer reads this information on the way to the fire, which aids him greatly on what to expect once his engine company arrives.

We also have specially trained people for hazardous material. We do this on a fire district level because no community can afford the complete hazardous material truck with special equipment or the training involved. We happen to be in district 14 which comprises 23 communities, and we have 40 technicians specially trained by a chemical company through the State Fire Academy on how to deal with all kinds of hazardous material. We have one hazardous material vehicle now in the district that is housed in Natick, and it will go anywhere in the district. Everyone of the technicians has a beeper and any time there is a haz mat problem in any of the communities in the district or it could be in another fire district that needs more than one haz mat team, these people will be alerted through their beeper. It will give them the location where they are to report to, and once they hear that go off, they call in to report centers and say they are on their way. Their messages are forwarded to Natick control. If for some reason, Natick has a fire in progress or is unable to do it, Concord is the backup for the communication center.

SARA, Superfund Amendment Reauthorization Act, was enacted in 1986. That was a federal plan that every community in the country have a preplan on what to do in case of a hazardous material problem. It is similar to LEPC, Local Emergency Plan Committee, which deals with such things as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc. We have preplans for any of those type of situations that could take place in our community. We have shelters set up all around town if we have to evacuate an area where the incident is, and we would get the people to hospitals or shelters depending on the situation.

Route 2 has presented a situation more than we realized. When we got more involved in hazardous material, we realized the trucks that move on Route 2 night and day through our town. By law, they have to have a placard mounted on four sides of the vehicle, and it gives a number and a symbol for each known chemical. We have reference books that we use to identify what type of material they are carrying in case of an accident. Some of them are pretty scary.

My worst scenario I've often thought, and thank God nothing has happened to this day, is if an accident occurred at the rotary circle on Route 2 and you open the book and it said to evacuate for two miles because some of the material requires that great a distance, we have in that area two prisons, a hospital, two nursing homes and several schools. It would really present a problem.

The Boston & Maine Railroad for the last ten or so years was a passenger line for commuters and not freight, but now with the closing of Fort Devens, they're making a truck depot there. Because New York harbors are so jammed, they want to divert some shipping from New York to Boston and send the cargo from Boston to Fort Devens by way of rail, which we would see coming through our town. The Boston & Maine for this reason has been upgrading their rails for the last couple of years. They are now working on their bridges so they can carry heavier loads. Once this is all in place, it will be busier in the years to come. This poses bigger problems for the potential of fires or hazardous materials problems.

When I first came into the department, the fire station was located on Walden Street right in the business district where the Walden Station restaurant is today. In 1960 the new station further out on Walden Street was built and that is where we operate out of today.

When I first came on, almost all the apparatus were made on Mack Motor Company chaises by Maxium Fire Apparatus Company and were made of steel. Over the years we have learned the salt that we put on the roads in the winter months is the worst situation for us. We go over those roads with these steel trucks and then when we come back into a heated fire station in the winter, the salt even acts quicker in rusting out the steel vehicle. The trucks have not been able to stand up over the normal 20 years that we feel we can get out of a truck. Today our apparatus is made of aluminum which eliminates this problem.

When I first came on as an auxiliary fire fighter, the fire chief was Harry Patterson. I was only on a short time when he retired and the next chief was Thomas Tombeno. He was chief for 15 years. Then Matthew Cullinane was chief for three years. At that time I was a captain. I became chief three months shy of serving 18 years in the fire department.

I probably got interested in fire service from my brother. He became a fire fighter before me. The hours they worked at that time were 24 on at a time, and it was that way when I came on also. My mother always wanted my brother to have a hot meal so the days he worked, I got the job of taking his meal down to him at the station where Walden Station restaurant is today. After seeing what fire fighters do, I took a liking to that myself.

I was born on Potter Street, but when I was only six months old we moved to Stow Street and I lived there all my life. I went to school and never left that street because I attended school through the eighth grade at the Peter Bulkeley School which is now Peter Bulkeley Terrace. The high school was right across from where I lived which today is Emerson Umbrella. All the schools were right there on Stow Street.

I played football and track and played under some of the best coaches the school ever had. Bernie Megin was my football coach. Walter Carew was my backfield coach and John O'Connell my line coach. Coach Harold "Skip" O'Connor was my track coach. I graduated in 1952.

Both my grandparents on my mother's side and my father's side came from Ireland. My grandfather on my mother's side was a blacksmith and had his shop right down behind Anderson's Market off Main Street. My grandfather on my father's side was a farmer and he worked for Middlesex School both running the farm and doing all the outside school maintenance.

There are some areas in town that do not have hydrants. It can create problems putting out a fire. That's one of the reasons I mentioned earlier why one of our trucks has a 5-inch diameter supply hose. We have one-half mile of 5-inch hose that can be put from the last hydrant or water hole and lay into where the fire is, but that is not always sufficient. The town does require the developers to put additional hydrants in, which is helping us greatly to cut down on the areas that do not have hydrants. But we still have some areas in town especially some of the new homes being built are not that close to water.

As fire chief, when you purchase a new piece of fire apparatus, you have to make out the specifications that work the best for you in your community. There are some areas like in Boston or in a city where they have water mains under the sidewalks and they have them about every 100 feet. So their trucks don't have to carry as much hose. Whereas a town like ours, we have a bylaw that requires hydrants every 400 feet, so we have to carry more hose. Where in some areas you don't have hydrants for a half mile. We have to design our trucks to take care of that need. Also in a city where a hydrant is available every 100 feet, they only carry a small amount of water with them to buy them a little time until they get hose lines hooked up. They can get by with 250 gallon tanks, where on our first line trucks we have 750 gallons of water which buys us a little more time to hook up because of the distance between the hydrants.

Now take the town of Carlisle that does not have any hydrants, they have tank trucks. They are fire trucks but they look more like an oil truck, and it carries 3500 gallons of water, so they bring all the water with them. So again it depends on what your needs are for the town.

The new chief now is Robert Robinson. He is certainly well qualified. He's been my deputy for two years. He's very conscientious and his knows the apparatus inside and out. He knows the fire codes. As a deputy, he worked in fire prevention. I think he'll be a great chief.

Text mounted 28 Jan. 2008; image mounted 25 May 2013 -- rcwh.