NORTH SMITHFIELD – Richard Nixon was president then, the Beatles were still a band, and men in space suits were still a few months shy of walking on the moon.
Deputy Fire Chief E. Craig Beausoleil joined the North Smithfield Fire Department in 1969, a time when the all-volunteer squad of good samaritans could hardly be called a department at all.
After 45 years on the job, Beausoleil will come to work for the last time Thursday, saying so-long to the only job he’s ever known as an adult.
“You know when it’s time to go,” he says. “Will I miss it? I’m probably going to miss it, for a while, ‘til I get it out of my system.”
Beausoleil, 63, has had firefighting in his system since he was 18. He joined a crew of 30 or so other men who called themselves the fire department – because they were. Members were unpaid volunteers who didn’t even get a token stipend on a per-fire-responded-to basis.
Volunteers were given a device called a “Plectron” that was used to summon them from wherever they were to respond to a fire, says Beausoleil. It was sort of a precursor to the latter-day electronic pager.
He and his fellow firefighters may have been volunteers, but they were a rough-and-ready crew. They threw themselves into dangerous situations because they knew that when it came to public safety, they were it.
“I liked helping people,” is how Beausoleil explains it. “We had a helluva crew.”
Virtually everything the volunteers learned about putting out fire they learned on the job. Over the years, Beausoleil came to enjoy the gritty challenges of real-life firefighting, but he also realized its shortcomings as a training experience.
For many years, the town’s firefighters – as well as those in many other communities – tried to simulate real-life experiences by setting their own fires and then putting them out. The best targets were often abandoned houses, but the practice wasn’t a particularly efficient way of running a training program.
Sometimes, firefighters had to invest more time removing hazardous materials from old houses than they spent burning them down, just to avoid exposing themselves or neighbors to dangerous fumes.
The Community College of Rhode Island had long offered courses in fire science for prospective firefighters, says Beausoleil, but a lot of the material covered was too abstract to be of much practical value to an inexperienced firefighter in the maw of a major conflagration.
“We always knew we needed some kind of hands-on training so they could see what they were going to be up against,” he says. “To individually feel the heat and see how fire works we really needed a fire academy.”
Beausoleil will always be able to recall his efforts to rectify the situation as one of the highlights of his career.
The deputy chief was one of a core group of seasoned experts from around the state who lobbied hard for the creation of a specialized academy for firefighters.
After many years of effort by the advocates, voters passed a $55 million statewide public safety bond in 2002 that included $6.4 million for a new Rhode Island State Fire Academy at the site of the old Ladd School in Exeter. The school opened this spring, nearly two years after breaking ground.
The facility is nothing less than a state-of-the art laboratory dedicated to the study of hands-on firefighting. The academy is equipped with a variety of training fixtures designed to acquaint firefighters with situations they’re going to encounter in real life, including burning cars, buildings and fuel tankers.
Unlike the fires that volunteers used to set, the simulations are all fueled by propane that can be turned off at the flip of a switch – or started up again just as easily.
“This is something we worked on for a good eight to ten years to bring about,” says Beausoleil. “We took legislators on a trip to Massachusetts once to see another school. At one point we went door to door at the State House.”
Beausoleil has seen advances in technology lessen the loss of lives and property caused by fires and motor vehicle accidents over the years, but progress cuts both ways. Think cell phones, for example: He blames texting with a relatively recent spike in motoring mishaps – some of them with costly consequences.
“Sometimes you find the phones on the floor of the car,” he says. “People aren’t paying attention to the road like they need to.”
Though he considers himself first and foremost a boots-on-the-ground type of firefighter, Beausoleil’s job as second-in-commend of the fire department is also a heavily administrative one, with a plethora of desk-jockeying chores. Beausoleil finds it hard to imagine the department running without a deputy chief, but he says he’s still not sure if the fire district’s governing board will promote someone to replace him or hire a new entry-level firefighter.
After 45 years on the job, there’s surely no replacing Beausoleil, but he says finding a new deputy chief is the right thing to do.
For Beausoleil, the right thing to do is, well, nothing – at least for a while. As he slips into retirement, Beausoleil says he doesn’t have any big plans; he just hopes life as a retiree will settle into place after a while.
“I’m going to take a couple of months off, relax,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of hobbies, I’ve got an antique car. I do a little woodworking.”