BELLINGHAM — Looking back over his lengthy career, Richard F. Ranieri pointed out one overriding concern that any fire chief has when the alarm sounds in the station house.
"You just hope that the day will end without an injury or fatality involving one of your firefighters or a member of the public," Ranieri said. "We are responsible for what happens, and it is a pretty awesome responsibility.”
Ranieri is about to retire after 39 years on the Bellingham Fire Department — having served 35 of those years as fire chief. He watched a small eight-member department grow into a well-trained emergency response organization using state-of-the-art firefighting and rescue equipment.
The chief's duty, and also that of any command officer at a distaster scene, is to make decisions that ensure the safety of everyone involved. That might be people trapped inside a burning building, or it could be firefighters pumped up and ready to charge into a vacant burning structure hoping to put a fire out.
The safety of residents and firefighters always comes first and demands of protecting property always second to personal safety, Ranieri noted.
"A lot of times you have to make a decision in a split second," he said. "You are not just sitting around a table having a discussion about a problem."
Working in firefighting for 39 years has taught Ranieri that sometimes things will go wrong even with the best of efforts on the part of the crews responding to a disaster scene.
Not all victims of an accident, a fire, or a health crisis will be saved and that is always on the mind of a chief in charge of the response to those incidents.
As he retires, Ranieri can point to a long list of accomplishments that have helped improve the odds for residents faced with emergencies even if a successful outcome cannot be guaranteed.
When he joined the Bellingham department as a 25-year-old firefighter in 1973, the department consisted of just Chief Vincent Thayer, the town's first full-time chief, and eight firefighters, all men.
The department at that time worked on a five-day weekly schedule and relied on firefighters coming in on pay-by-the-call compensation to generate coverage of weekend incidents.
The department's headquarters was at the small police and fire station building at the town center and it also maintained small unmanned satellite stations, housing pieces of equipment in North and South Bellingham. The budget was just $173,000 annually, compared to the town's $1.7 million fire department budget today, and the available firefighters covered Belling-ham's 10-mile length from Hartford Avenue in North Bellingham to the south section of town running along Pulaski Boulevard to Woonsocket.
The predominately residential make-up of the town had a little under 13,000 residents living in North, Central and South residential tracts centering around its two major thoroughfares, Route 126 running north from South Bellingham, and Hartford Avenue running east-west near Route 495 in the north.
When he was appointed chief by the Board of Selectmen on Jan. 24, 1977, Ranieri faced an immediate task of expanding the department's staffing and hired three new members to move the department to seven-days-a-week coverage by full-time members.
The change allowed the department to have members on duty around the clock for the first time in its history.
Ranieri also oversaw improvements in the certifications of town rescue personnel even as the town was forced to drop its use of the old ambulance due to new state regulations.
The basic first aid care offered by firefighters initially was improved to emergency medical care with the hiring and training of the department's first EMTs.
The department moved into advanced life support care in 1999 with the hiring of three trained paramedics and then two more paramedics in 2000.
Improvements in department certifications allowed BFD to end its reliance on a Milford Hospital advanced life support unit shared with other area towns. Franklin was the first community to offer its own unit of advanced life support and Bellingham quickly followed suit.
The department's firefighters also gained EMT training at that time, which added a further improvement in local emergency response services, Ranieri noted
The town added a second rescue vehicle in 2002 and at that point offered residents the best care possible from emergency response units short of a Lifeflight crew of doctors and nurses.
"Our paramedics can pretty much do anything for a patient that could be done in the ER,'' Ranieri said, listing cardiac medications, IVs, resuscitation, heart monitoring and defibrillation equipment now carried on the rescues.
"If we don't get the person back while out on the street, the odds are they are not going to be able to do much more at the hospital," he said.
The department's growth came as the town experienced its own period of tremendous growth. The old bedroom community added two large power generation facilities off Depot Street and Maple Street over the years, and also major commercial development on Hartford Avenue that included three separate commercial plazas and a multi-screen cinema hosting up to 2,000 people. Residential housing expanded, and the town also saw the addition of several corporate distribution operations — more than 750,000 square-feet of distribution building space at Blue Links lumber products facility off Maple Street and the Best Buy and Dunkin Donut distribution warehouses off Depot Street.
The fire department has responded to that growth by building its staffing to 22 members, including Ranieri and Deputy Chief Steven Gentile, his soon-to-be successor.
The department also now has a day lieutenant handling calls and inspection duties from headquarters and four group lieutenants leading the department's four shifts of firefighters and paramedic personnel.
The lieutenants help conduct the training the department members take on in the latest firefighting and rescue techniques and use of equipment such as the department's four hand-held heat sensors used to locate a trapped fire victim or the source of threatening flames.
Ranieri hired the department's first full-time female firefighter, Bethany Cloutier, who followed Barbara Provost's service as a department call member and dispatcher as another step forward in 2003. And, he credits town leaders such as former Selectman Anthony Mazzola with the vision needed to spend just under $1 million on the construction of a new fire headquarters on Blackstone Street in 1988. The building, which houses most of the department's apparatus including its new ladder truck, was completed in 1989 under budget.
Ranieri says he has many people to thank for his department's improvements over the years — firefighters and EMTs like Joe Deslauriers and Ernest Hadley; department officers such as the late Deputy Chief Steven A. Garron, who had been headed for his own opportunity as chief of the department before his death in 2009; and the department's union leadership such as Mike Delorme and Gary Fafard, who helped him implement new certifications and the training that went along with them. Ranieri is also grateful to the town's residents who he said supported the department when financial needs were brought forward.
"We've come a long way and to do that you have to be progressive while keeping in mind there are some financial limitations," he said.
Ranieri said holding the job of chief also requires help from people within the department and some from those outside the department, such as the many other fire chiefs he had the chance to meet and seek advice from over the years. They included the likes of Chief John DePaolo of Milford, Chief Wendall McNamara of Wrentham, Chief John Mullaly of Millville, Chief John Green of Blackstone and Chief Gerald Landry of Woonsocket. They could always be counted on to show up at a major incident and offer bits of advice from their own years of experience.
The tradition has continued with Ranieri's contemporaries, retired chief Henry Renaud and the deputy chiefs in Woonsocket, Cumberland Hill Fire Chief Kenneth Finlay, Blackstone Chief Michael Sweeney and Chief Joel Jillson and Deputy Chief Craig Beausoliel in North Smithfield.
The fire department leaders still gather for regular meetings once a month to discuss cooperative issues and still offer each other help at disasters such as the Alice Mill fire in Woonsocket last summer.
There is a common bond that develops among first responders to a disaster and unfortunately that bond is sometimes tempered by the personal tragedies they witness despite their efforts to help.
Ranieri said he proud to have witnessed the firefighting profession adopt a recognition of the personal costs firefighters pay in doing their jobs and pointed to the cautious debriefings firefighters are now afforded after experiencing such a tragedy as another important step forward.
The loss of a life is a lasting emotional impact to the person's family, but can also can be traumatic for the person who tried to save them, Ranieri said.
"If you have been a firefighter any length of time, you have seen your share of tragedies and you learn to deal with them in different ways," he said. The opportunity to speak with another first responder who has had similar experiences can help the person keep it all in perspective, according to Ranieri.
"You have to understand that it wasn't because of anything you did. You have to understand that you did your best and you have to move on to the next thing. If you don't do that, you don't last too long in this business," he said.
There are the success stories that firefighters can focus on as a way to sooth the losses and Ranieri likes to recall his own experiences of working with local firefighters and police officers in pulling victims out of burning buildings and seeing them recover as best possible memories of his job.
It is an unknown outcome when a firefighter hunkers down under the pall of increasing smoke as the search begins but the chance location of the person in time to pull them back to the realm of safety is not easily forgotten. Ranieri can still picture the soot-covered face of an unconscious woman he located after such a search through a burning home on Carriere Avenue in 1980 and got out with the help of other responders. The odds seemed locked against the woman who gone into the home thinking her mother was trapped inside, and Ranieri worried that she wouldn't survive.
But later, at Landmark Medical Center, the rescuers got a chance to speak with the recovering victim and felt the joy the comes with having made a difference at least that time.
Ranieri had a second such success while pulling a man from a South Main Street fire with the help of Firefighters Rick Marcoux and Joe Deslauriers. The man had been yelling for help and then went quiet after being overcome by smoke filling his second floor apartment. He too was saved after being dragged down the stairs from the burning building and recovered, Ranieri said.
"Without a doubt, both people in those two incidents, without our intervention, would have died," he said.
"Sometimes you do good things, and sometimes it is beyond your control. You have to accept that and move on to the next call," he said.
Ranieri decided it was finally time for him to answer his final call shortly after his mother, Eleanor, passed away last August. "She had asked me once when I went to see her, 'When are you going to retire,' and I said pretty soon," Ranieri said.
His father Donald, still lives in the Bellingham home where his parents raised their six children, former State Representative and longtime local School Committee member Daniel Ranieri, Police Lt. Kevin Ranieri, Robert, Tom, Cheryl, and himself.
Ranieri's last day on duty will come on Jan. 25, a day after his 35th year anniversary as chief.
For the future, he is looking forward to spending more time with his own family, his wife Linda, and grown children Christina, Jessica, and Richard Jr., and his two granddaugthers, Ariana and Avari. That's something you can't always count on when you work the job of firefighter.
"I would tell anyone that being a firefighter is the best job in the world, but unfortunately there are sacrifices you have to make for that job," he said. "Sometimes you pay with your health and sometimes you pay by missing family events," Ranieri said. "But I always tell firefigters to remember that this the best job in the world and they know it," he said.