After 15 years at helm, he's hanging up the boots

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Lebanon Fire Chief Skip Wood enters a Lebanon Fire Station bay as he prepares to ready trucks for a fire call last week. (Lebanon Voice/Harrison Thorp photos)

Blaine "Skip" Wood has been the avuncular, unassuming chief of the Lebanon Fire Department for 15 years, but what many don't know is that he first started with the department as a firefighter some 50 years ago, about the same time as the Beatles were breaking upon the pop music scene.

If you were to choose a Beatles song that exemplifies Skip, a very easy going man comfortable in his own skin, you might pick "Act Naturally," which was actually covered by the Beatles in August 1965, but originally recorded by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos two years earlier. Why? Because Skip's as natural as they come. Unfortunately all good things come to an end and Skip has decided to retire from his duties as chief. That retirement will become effective when a suitable replacement is found.

Skip, 72, a lifetime resident of Lebanon, has been married to his wife, Carol, for 52 years. While working for Lebanon Fire, Skip has held several jobs but mostly he worked managing various auto body shops. They have two daughters, Debra, who lives in New York, and Christine, who lives in North Lebanon; and a son, Rodney, who lives in Alfred.

We caught up with Skip and Ginger, the department's fire dog and mascot, last week and sat down with him to talk about his career with Lebanon Fire, the challenges it now faces and the changes he's seen.

Lebanon Voice: Can you tell me briefly about your Lebanon Fire Department career?

Skip: I was working at Cyro (a plastics factory in Sanford) at the time and my boss who lives on Depot Road who was on the department talked me into joining so I came up and joined. And then I basically was a volunteer. We were elected to whatever position you were elected to and the first year I missed the election, don't know just why, but I missed and I got elected lieutenant. The second year I missed the election and got elected second assistant chief.

Lebanon Voice: So you were moving up the ranks by missing elections?

Skip: (chuckles) Well, back then we didn't have the same system we have now. So I stayed assistant chief all the way up through. Then I was asked to be chief a few years ago when one of the chiefs got done and I didn't want it then, because I was working too much and didn't really have the time to do it as much as it should be. Actually a couple of times I did that, but then this last one when the chief got done, I took it then because I figured at that time I could do more. That was 2000.

Lebanon Voice: So it's been about 15 years you've been chief.

Skip: Off and on. I was there for a year and a half and they tried to replace me because the old chief wanted his job back. But by law they can't do that without a public hearing and Maine law states once you're a fire chief you're in there indefinitely unless you do something wrong and then they can, but then you're subject to a public hearing, so they reversed it and put me back in so I was out for about a month.

Lebanon Voice: What's the biggest change in firefighting since you began 50 years ago.

Skip: Everything. The technology and the danger of it. I mean back then there was danger but you didn't have the poisonous gas and so much. I mean you'd be going into a (smoking) building without your protection and you'd maybe get sick, throw up or something, but you wouldn't die normally from it unless you got burned.

Lebanon Voice: You mean all the material we use to make our furniture and things like that

Skip: Yes, you see before it wasn't that bad. I mean you'd get sick, if you got too much smoke you'd come out throwing up but it wasn't going to really hurt you.

Also now you got a lot of the training and the required training that you have to do now for the laws, because somebody gets hurt then they put a new law in and you got to follow that, upgrade the training, so it's just a matter of the time involved.

I mean when I first started we had 20 to 25 calls a year. Now we have ten times that, 15 times that.

Lebanon Voice: How about as far as equipment

Skip: Everything we had back then was what we made. It wasn't anything that was virtually even a fire truck. Some way old used 1940-something, what they called fire trucks; and sometime we had one but most of it was something we built up like an oil tanker and we'd put a pump on it. Then we'd get a truck and put pumps on it. Our first new one was an '82, that was our first new fire truck that we bought that was actually a fire truck.

Lebanon Voice: What was the clunkiest truck looking back that you ever had.

Skip: We had some oil tankers that we used to haul water in, they were 2,000 gallons, they didn't even have a pump on them.

Lebanon Voice: if there's no pump on them how do you get the water onto the fire?

Skip: Well, those had a pump, but they were small. You'd use them to feed another truck that had a bigger pump. We did have a truck for a while that was from the Air Force. It was an Air Force fuel carrier which we got and at the time thought it would be a good thing. It was a 3,500-gallon fuel tanker, but when you filled it with water it didn't have enough power to pull it because fuel oil and water are quite a difference in weight.

Lebanon Voice: Which is heavier?

Skip: Water is heavier. Fuel will float on water.

Lebanon Voice: So when you look back on your 50-year career, all the fires and all the other incidents, is there one or two fires that really stand out?

Skip: Well, no, not really. I mean there's some bigger ones you remember a little more. But once they're done with the stories sometimes seem to grow from what the story was. I mean you get a story three or four years later and it was a bigger fire than it actually was. They keep growing all the time.

Lebanon Voice: Can you give me an example of that?

Skip: Well, they'd be talking about a fire they'd been in and I was there, too, and I'd say well, I don't remember it that way. It's funny how, just like a fish story it grows. But there's been some you don't forget. I remember one down on Chick Road many years ago. We was there all night and we went upstairs, me and another guy, we went upstairs to fight the fire and the flames were in front of us, wire dangling around and we were working on the fire. We could see the glow in front of us and we kept advancing toward the glow through the smoke. We just kept advancing and advancing then finally the fire went over our heads and got behind us, so then we put that fire out and walked out. But the next day we could see where we were advancing to there was the edge and there was the kitchen part which was down below us, so it would've been a 15- to 20-foot drop, so that edge, the glow we were advancing to, we would've fallen into the hole, I mean we didn't know that at the time.

Lebanon Voice: So you saw the next day if you'd gone a little farther you would've fallen into the kitchen fire below and perhaps been severely burned or killed.

Skip: We didn't know that at the time. Then back then you had mutual aid but you didn't have it the same way (as today). Anyhow by the time you got mutual aid the fire had progressed to the point where you couldn't save the building anyway. Another thing that was rough was getting water from trucks that had frozen up.

We had three-below nights there were fires where the water hose would freeze up before you even got started. We had one up on Fogg Road up near the apple orchard where we had to get up there and put a tarp over one of the trucks and get a salamander (kerosene heater) and then we got some generators to run under the truck to run the salamanders to get the water on it.

Lebanon Voice: Outside of firefighting and your auto body work what other passions do you have? What do you like to do to relax?

Skip: Well, I used to hunt but I don't do that anymore. In the summer we have a river (Little River) go by our property so we have little a camping area for the family. We used to have quite a few come by, but now not so much but we keep it nice and neat. So mowing takes a lot of time in the summer. It can take five hours. That keeps you busy. Plus haying and keeping the four horses going.

Lebanon Voice: You end up leaving Lebanon Fire at what some would see as a pivotal time for Lebanon first responders, what with the sole responder fee and combining the departments. What do you see as the future for Lebanon Fire and Lebanon Rescue?

Skip: I believe they're going to combine. They're going to have to combine to make it work and they're going to have to start paying and making it worthwhile for the volunteers for what they want them to do. I mean you're going to get some volunteers, but you're not going to get the coverage that you used to get. I mean it used to be that if you had a call, you'd go. It didn't matter if they had to go to work at 5 in the morning, if there was a fire they were going to go. Then they'd leave the fire and go to work. They don't do that anymore.

Nobody seems to want to do that anymore. You can't really blame them. There weren't many nights that the tone went off at 3 in the morning and I said I can't go I have to go to work at 5. That didn't happen years ago. Now it does. Now they say I have to go to work tomorrow so I'm not going to go. So it's matter of you're going to have to make it worth their while to miss some work, it's going to be sooner or later you're going to need people that are dedicated to filling the job and supporting it.

Lebanon Fire Chief Skip Wood pats Ginger as he takes a call regarding a car fire on River Road last week.

It's not going to be your job comes first - that's what we tell people; your family comes first, your job comes second and the fire department comes third.

So it's always the family and the job and we're last. Way back when I went to work in Dover I'd say if there was a fire, I'm going, I don't care, and the guy I was working for didn't care. Most places around here, if there was a fire they'd let you go and come back when you're done with the fire, no problem. They (employers) don't do that anymore. It's coming that you're going to have to have some full-time staff and a place to do it. And this place (Central Station) is not set up for that. I mean we have some bunks out there, but it's not set up.

Lebanon Voice: So what happened between then and now?

Skip: It's the whole world. I mean volunteerism is down. It's everywhere. It's just the town here was a little slower to realize it and we've been trying to get it through to them and it's one of the reasons. I mean, I was going to get done four or five years ago, but Mr. Cole (former assistant rescue chief and selectman) came in and said I was done and he was going to put his wife in as the chief and I said he wasn't going to do that. I mean it wasn't public knowledge, but it was known.

Lebanon Voice: So he said I was going to be done and he was going to put his wife in as the fire chief?

Skip: He said it but he denied it. So I said I wasn't leaving. I'd fight with him all the time so it's gone downhill since then as far as what I can do and the other selectmen would back him all the way through, so it's been fighting and trying to get them to see where we were headed.

Lebanon Voice: So do you think we're heading in the right direction now?

Skip: Now I think they're coming around to see that when their plan with the rescue didn't really work out, and now with me leaving, they're going to find out the same thing, cause there's nobody who's going to come and do the same thing, because, like right now if the call went out now, it's hard to say who we'd get, if we'd get anybody.

Lebanon Voice: For fire or rescue?

Skip: Yes, for either one, depending on the day.

Lebanon Voice: You mean if a call came in for a fire you have no clue if we'd get anybody?

Skip: Right now I have no one signed on to say they're on duty or whatever. That's what I've been trying to do lately. Give them a little incentive to say they will respond if there's a call.

That would be a small stipend or points (which translate to dollars when they get their stipend). That's what I've been doing for the past five or six months. It amounts to about 87 cents an hour, which isn't too much, especially when they live out of town.

And the last time I checked there was only eight people who live in town who are on the fire department and I have about 30 on roster.

Lebanon Voice: But it seems to me like when there's a fire and I've covered it, you guys seem to get out pretty fast.

Skip: Yeah, usually you will get somebody to start with but you need more people.

Lebanon Voice: It seems that with rescue you'd think if you had two people you could make a medical call. How many do you need, even for a dryer fire or a shed fire, how many do you need?

Skip: By labor board and fire board you need five: two in, two out and you need someone running the truck.

(At this point Ginger, Skip's dog and the department's faithful mascot barks)

Lebanon Voice: So does Ginger go on your calls?

Skip: Not anymore, she's getting kind of old. Use to be when the tone went off she'd be waiting at the door, but not so much anymore. Now she looks up and goes "Aaargh" and goes back to sleep.

Lebanon Voice: Are you looking forward to retirement?

Skip: I don't really know for sure, it all depends on what develops here. I' don't like giving it up completely. I think I can still have a role here. I can do this part (looks at paperwork) with no problem and I don't mind doing it all. During the summer I have plenty to do. As far as responding to calls I don't think so. I might come to a big call as a gopher if they needed me. It depends on who the chief is, what his needs are.

Lebanon Voice: What would be you most important advice to the next chief?

Skip: Treat you r personnel right and listen to them, because if they don't back you up, you're not going to succeed. And doing what's best for the town.

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