WOONSOCKET — They have worked in city fire stations for over 30 years and Woonsocket Fire Department Deputy Chiefs Thomas F. Williams and Marcel M. Bacon know their careers involved much more than showing up at a job each day.
Doing the job of a firefighter or rescue EMT requires frequent training, good leadership and most of all team work.
It also helps to have a bit of luck or Divine intervention on your side when the tough spots come along.
Learning such things is part of the long road a department member must follow to achieve Williams and Bacon’s rank, and its importance to the department overall was one of the reasons members of their respective 28-member platoons took time to honor the deputies last week with close-knit gatherings.
Williams and Bacon are among a group of five officers recently retiring from the department and signed off their careers with shifts on Tuesday and Saturday.
As his platoon ate a taco salad supper at the Cumberland Street Department Headquarters on Tuesday, Bacon said making the decision to retire came with both happiness and sadness.
“It’s a lifestyle that you’ve had for over 30 years,” Bacon said at the station. “It’s more than just a job. It is a second family,” he said.
Firefighters must be able to count on each other and know that their fellow department members completed the tasks needed when a disaster or life-threatening incident occurs.
They must face the hazards associated with responding to a burning structure or a chemical spill or gas leak, help other people reach safety, and cope with the sadness that comes with a tragic loss of life or the passing of another person’s loved one.
For department officers, the burden of watching out for the safety of the fire department’s members and city residents can become stressful at times and counter the job’s highpoint moments with a bit of common reality. Bacon believes he was able to be successful in his leadership role largely because of the team structure that exists within his platoon.
“The people I have worked with in this department are so dedicated, so professional and so knowledgeable about the science of firefighting,” he said. “That made my job so much easier.”
Bacon, like Williams, followed his father, the late Normand “Pete” Bacon, into fire department service. The 1979 graduate of Woonsocket High School went on the department in 1981 and served as a private for a time before the elder Bacon, a city fire marshal, retired as Captain in 1988.
Bacon also learned the job from the late Chief Gerald P. Landry, who he described as a great leader, and retired Chief Henry “Hank” Renaud, a brilliant student of fire science who knew how to let his subordinates learn the responsibilities of their roles.
“Chief Renaud didn’t get excited. He let you be the incident commander and would stand back and give advice when you needed it,” he said.
Fire department work can range from the job of rescuer when looking for someone lost in a burning building to defender when trying to keep a fire from spreading and causing more extensive damage. The job can also include duty on city rescue vehicles where emergency medical technicians face a wide range of calls and sometimes stand as the difference between a tragedy or catastrophic illness for local residents.
Bacon, a fire science instructor for the state Fire Training Academy, experienced rewarding successes at those tasks over the years and also some disappointments.
The most difficult moments for any firefighter come when their efforts to save the lives of children come to no avail.
“Those tug on you, pull at your heart strings, and are hard to get over,” Bacon said.
Sometimes firefighters will make an entry into a burning building, locate the person, and yet not be able to save them.
But when they have a good outcome in such a challenge-- they find a person and save them-- that far outweighs all the sadder moments, according to Bacon. From his own perspective, some of the most rewarding successes were the babies he helped deliver outside the hospital while working as a member of the department’s rescue units.
The first time he helped to deliver a baby left Bacon feeling pretty proud when he got to the hospital and everything worked out well. “I saw another rescue crewmember from Providence come in on a delivery and told him ``I just delivered a baby,” Bacon said. Bacon asked the veteran firefighter how many births that night represented for him, and he responded 22.
“It brought you back down to earth,” Bacon, who ended up assisting 6 deliveries during his career, recalled.
Williams, who followed in the footsteps of his father, Thomas P. Williams, a department member who became a city civil defense director, had an even more powerful experience highlighting the importance of rescue work while he was a member of a city rescue unit.
A 1976 graduate of Woonsocket High School, Williams joined the department in 1979, and initially was assigned as a private on Engine 2 at Station 2 on Cumberland Street. He eventually took a job as driver of Rescue 1 and then when the city was adding a second rescue unit in 1984, earned his EMT-Cardiac certification and became a Lieutenant on the new vehicle.
He was on duty with that training on May 1, 1984, when he and fellow Rescue 2 member Paul Russell got a cardiac call.
“It was a call to my home and we went,” Williams remembers.
His mother, Pauline, had suffered a heart attack and Williams arrived home to find his father and his sister, Kathleen, performing CPR on her. Williams and Russell took over and used their new skills to revive his mother and get her Fogarty Hospital in North Smithfield for further treatment.
“She was discharged from Fogarty Hospital a week later,” Williams said. His mother made a full recovery and because of her son’s training and others, has enjoyed all the years since with her family.
“We just did what we had to do. You can’t think about it,” he said last week.
Williams has felt that sense of making a difference many times over his 31 years on the department and always credits platoon successes to training and teamwork.
“The bottom line is that we are well-trained and our goal always is to go out there and make a difference,” he said.
Whether it is a fast-pace rescue emergency or a major structure fire like the blaze that consumed the city’s historic Alice Mill in June, Williams said everyone on a platoon has a role to play to keep both the firefighters and the public safe.
As his platoon rolled out for a response to an alarm at the Alice Mill early in the evening of June 7, Williams said he opted to make it a full alarm response as a precaution.
The crews arriving on scene did not see apparent signs of a fire in progress but six firefighters made an entry into the massive brick mill and started up the stairs of its two towers toward the third floor where the alarm had sounded. Williams, making a check of the building outside, then spotted a plume of smoke beginning to emerge from the front windows of the third floor and put in a call for the dispatch recall the firefighters inside.
Almost simultaneously, the firefighters reaching the second floor area caught a glimpse of the ceiling of that stretch of mill and spotted flames roiling across the ceiling in their direction. They quickly began their retreat and the fire announced its presence by blowing out four windows on the third floor and sending a pall of smoke to engulf the escaping firefighters.
“Had they made it to the third floor, they may not have gotten out,” Williams said.
Without active sprinklers inside the structure, the old mill was engulfed in flames and rumbling with explosions within minutes. The fire destroyed the historic structure but did not claim anyone’s life, or additional nearby properties, a good outcome from the view of fire department policy.
“Obviously our job is dangerous and we accept the risks,” Williams said. “But during a fire the incident commander has to make a risk analysis and determine the next step,” he said. “Certainly if there are no lives to be saved in the building our strategy changes and we move to protect the surrounding buildings, our people and the people in the community,” he said.
Williams, who holds an associates degree in fire science and a bachelor of science degree in public administration, said fire department officers learn some of the things they need on the job in the classroom but also from many years of working and learning from other firefighters.
That is one of the reasons, he knows the local department will get by as he, Bacon, and the three other retiring members head off into retirement. Also departing city service are Capt. Stephen A. Bilodeau, department training director, Lt. Francis Dunton III, an assistant fire marshal, and the department Hazardous Materials officer, Steven A. Preston.
“The department is losing 132 years in collective experience, but it is a progression of leadership,” he said. “Other department members with experience will get their chance to lead and move up,” he said. “You never stop learning while you are on this job,” he said.
Bacon and Williams said they are not yet sure what they will do after they serve their last shift on the department and handle their final call.
Bacon noted the job and its hours has cost him time with his family, his wife, Susan, and children, Jake and Isabel, but that will now change.
Williams had come close to making 15,000 emergency runs by his own tally of 14,702 by Saturday afternoon, but feels he has done enough of such work that he too can now look ahead to spending more time with his wife, Debbie, and daughter, Kaitlyn. There might be sometime else as time goes on, but that might be remains to be seen, according to the firemen.
“I believe that when one door closes for you in life, another one opens,” Williams said.