Q&A with Windham Chief Charlie Hammond

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WINDHAM – After 44 years of service, Fire Chief Charlie Hammond is ready to hang up the hose.

In early April, Hammond announced that he would retire at the end of 2014. Hammond, who has served as chief for 29 years, at one point served simultaneously as a principal, teacher and fire chief.

In an interview with the Lakes Region Weekly, Hammond reflected on his time as chief in the post-Sept. 11 era, the evolution of the Windham Fire-Rescue Department, and the prospects for a regional fire department.

Q: When did you become chief?

A: I became chief in 1985. For 15 years I was a firefighter. I was a member of Gorham and I was a member of Windham, and in ’85 I became chief and Gorham had a policy and I was still teaching school. Gorham had a policy, if there was a house fire during the day, town employees could leave and go to the fire. So I went to the superintendent of schools and said, “OK, this applies to them, does it apply to me?” and they said, “Yes, it does.” So I was allowed to leave to go to house fires on the Windham side as well as the Gorham side during the daytime.

It was a privilege that I was allowed to use on both sides of the bridge, which was good. I was able to go to Gorham and help them and I was able to come to Windham and supervise over here, because at that point in time everything on both sides of the bridge was a call department. In other words, nobody was in the station, and so people had to come and get trucks and go to the fires.

Q: Does anything stick out in your mind as especially memorable, reflecting over the past few decades here?

A: I think it’s the continuous change and making progress inch by inch by inch throughout the years. I mean there have been very few wholesale changes but we’ve made progressions up through. Like I said, when we started in 1985 we were all call. You joined the department, you came from home or wherever you were, and at that time our call numbers were such that if you had a major incident, businesses would allow their employees to leave and go back to the fire scene, and then return to work if they had to. The miniscule amount of money that they were paid for being a called firefighter was probably in the neighborhood of $3 or $4 an hour, you know, just above whatever minimum wage was. But the businesses were impacted because they lost production time and over the years that has changed.

In the 1990s, we put together a process where we brought in per-diems and there was an individual, Randy Stewart, within our organization that put together a pay plan, and that made it good for members. It benefited them based upon their license certification, whether they were a basic EMT medical provider or they were a firefighter paramedic, meaning advanced, and it rewarded them for their years of service at the same time. That’s been one of the better changes because it produces longevity of members to stay within the organization, rather than join and I know I’m going to be make $5 an hour for the rest of my life. It progresses up through.

Q: Any insights into the human condition from your decades on the fire-rescue department?

A: Not really. The people that join our system are primarily committed to providing public service in addition to receiving a financial benefit for providing that service. They’re matched right now. They get a pretty good wage and they provide a very good service. We get many postcards back to us that tell what a great job the people did, how humanized they were, how they were treated with respect and thank you very much for providing a great service.

Q: I remember after Sept. 11 there was this huge cultural phenomenon about firefighters.

A: I firmly believe that there’s still and probably always will be a respect for people that provide public safety services, whether it be fire, EMS or police. There’s always an inherent risk in anything you do, with a police officer going off to a domestic dispute, that person puts themselves at risk because you don’t know what’s on the other side of that door when you’re walking into that house. Same way with a firefighter. Everybody else is bailing out of the building when you’re going in.

In 2001, when we had the Sept. 11, that risk showed itself by an act of terrorism that came to our shores. That was something that had never happened before. And so who were the people that went, the first responders of the New York Fire Department, the New York Police Department, and other public agencies responded to that call, gave their lives for the mission of trying to rescue and get the people out of the building. As a result, there were many lives lost, all the way from young to old to fire, police, Port Authority, citizens that were working in the buildings. All of these people lost their lives. There’s a human outcry by the public of, “Oh my God.” And that lasted for a period of time.

Now it’s beginning to dwindle. And it dwindles in many, many ways. The federal government put together a program called the Fire Act. That Fire Act was a grant system for fire departments in communities smaller, bigger, and it was pro-rated depending on what the size of your community was, what risks you had and things like that. It was pro-rated and backed up financially by the federal government to give grants.

Windham got grants. We got what we call a fire blast trailer, which is a simulation trailer where you can train firefighters to go into an environment. It’s operated on propane, so you don’t have to worry about pallets or hay or anything like that. We got that through a federal grant between Gorham and Windham and the cost of that was almost $200,000. We got a grant to upgrade all of our breathing apparatus. We got a grant for protective clothing for our firefighters and that amounted to about $150,000 to $175,000. We got a training grant where we got laptop computers and PowerPoint projectors and training materials for our fire and EMS people and that amounted to, I want to say, about $70,000.

So we’ve benefited from that. As time has gone on, that funding has diminished. And they’ve taken it into different arenas.

We have a hazmat group that is made up of Standish, Windham, Gorham, Scarborough and Westbrook. Five communities. Our people are hazmat trained to the technician level. We got federal funding to train those people and to buy the equipment that we needed to provide that service and we became for a few years, we were what they called a weapons of mass destruction team. We were able to do that and now the funding has begun to dwindle. At one point in time, the state of Maine had 16 teams. Now we’re down to about eight.

Q: And the Windham Fire Rescue is considered a WMD team?

A: We were. We’re no longer. We were probably five years.

Q: How much training did you actually need?

A: The big thing was anthrax. Remember when they talked about anthrax? Well, there was a time right after Sept. 11 where we were trained to deal with anthrax and explosives and things like that. During a short period of time, in a given period of like two or three weeks, we handled 50 to 60 anthrax calls. I mean if you found something and you didn’t know what it was, it was probably anthrax in your mind. I went to the Crooked River School one afternoon for an anthrax scare that was breadcrumbs in the cafeteria on the counter. I went to Bridgton one night, and there it was the paper shards that came with a bunch of bank checks and paper work, and they didn’t know what it was. So, “oh, my God, it’s gotta be anthrax.”

Q: How did you feel at that time? What did you think about the fact that all these anthrax calls were coming in from the Lakes Region?

A: You were surviving that time and nobody was really sure that they weren’t going to be anthrax. You had to assume that every one of the calls was legit until you found out otherwise. There were Cumberland County sheriff’s (deputies), state troopers and local police departments. We’d send a sample of the product to the police lab in Augusta, and they would tell us what it was. “Is it or isn’t it anthrax? No it’s not, it’s breadcrumbs,” and you would feel pretty stupid afterwards, but in a public school you weren’t going to take the chance with kids in there.

Q: Were any of these ever anthrax?

A: No.

Q: Did you ever deal with a terrorism case?

A: No.

Q: So what does that say to you about that era?

A: I guess I would take it back to the Joe McCarthy era during the 1950s when they had the theories about everybody being a communist. Well, you know, same thing. Everybody’s scared because we’ve just been attacked, whether we like it or not. We’ve been attacked, so what’s coming next? Oh, the chemicals. They’re coming after us with chemicals, scud bombs, with radioactive dirty bombs and anthrax. That was the theories that they professed, and the public became aware of it and so they became, “oh, my God, it’s a white powder, any white powder’s got to be anthrax.” Not true. But that’s what people believed and they wanted to be protected from, so our mission went from fire department to hazardous materials and WMD.

Q: But now that the hysteria has died down, so has your federal funding.

A: That hurts because there is still a need of financial commitment for fire protection and EMS services in the community, and are the communities willing to put forth the funding that is needed to meet the needs of their local fire and EMS system? I don’t get an unlimited budget from town hall. Nobody else does either. I would say in the state of Maine that financially, the fire service has fared OK.

Q: In terms of going into a burning building, do you have any particular memories, have you had any near-death experiences out there?

A: I’ve had some scares, but I haven’t had any near-death experiences.

Q: Any scares that come to mind?

A: I’ve got several that come to mind that I’m not going to share. One memorable experience that I have is at the Maine Correctional Center we had a hazardous material incident in which we sent 47 people to the hospital from the facility – some of them guards, some of them inmates. We used ambulances from as far away as Saco to transport. They brought them up, (Gorham Fire) Chief (Robert) Lefebvre had command of the staging area. We would call for an ambulance. We would transport patients that were exposed to the toluene fumes. And we sent them to the hospital. We did that the first night, and I’ll be darned if we didn’t do it again the second night, because the fumes got back into where the inmates were. And that was a really challenging experience, because it involved federal marshals that had to come in because there were certain prisoners. There were state troopers that had to come in because there were some prisoners, like you and I might be against each other and testifying, so there’s got to be a police officer that separates us. So that was complicated. But we handled it. Nobody got hurt. Nobody died. But it shows a regional cooperation that’s available and takes place that I’m real happy to say Windham is part of.

Q: That shows you that there needs to be central county fire force?

A: Not “needs to be,” but I believe there’s going to be at some point.

Q: Due to increasing cooperation?

A: Increasing cooperation and lack of resources. I mean nobody has extra people anymore. The only way you’re going to be able to commit to hiring these people and maintaining them as full-time is, I believe, you’re going to have to have a full-time organization, and it’s not going to be done by community by community by community. There’s a better way to build it.

Q: Wouldn’t that mean a smaller number of people fighting fires in the county at large?

A: Not necessarily a smaller number of people, but you’d have a stable workforce that you could depend upon, and they would be strategically placed and the taxation system for the county might be the one that’s doing it all, instead of each community trying to fund their own fire department, much like the county sheriff system.

Q: Have you advocated for this specifically here in Windham?

A: I have not advocated. I’m just predicting. This is what I see coming for the future.

Q: Because of further budget reductions at the municipal level?

A: You’re going to face them over and over and over.

Q: Why?

A: I think that the demand for financial resources is going to outstrip the resources that can be provided through the municipal taxation system.

Q: What about the possibility of private fire departments popping up?

A: That’s always a possibility. It can happen. It happened in Scottsdale, Ariz., and they have a private fire service. They’ve been there for a long time. They have fire codes. You can’t build a building in Scottsdale, Ariz., without a sprinkler system. You will not get a building permit. And (because of) the fire codes you don’t have fires, because my building codes for the fire department are going to be so strict that you won’t have a fire.

I think they do it overseas a lot, the same way. I’ve watched some of the TV shows and things like that. In Japan, because of the culture and because the houses are what they are, they’re made out of different materials, if you have a house fire over there, you’re really shunned. You’re a disgrace to the community if you have a house fire and burn your house down, because you’re not going to burn just yours. They’re so close together over there, you may burn 10 or 15 of them and that’s embarrassing, you know.

Windham Fire Chief Charlie Hammond. 

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