Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates recently celebrated his 45th year as a firefighter. Sun Journal photo by Jon Bolduc

 

NORWAY— The beginning of Dennis Yates’ career was a literal trial by fire.

Yates, 69, has been Norway Fire Chief since 2009. He started his career on March 5th of 1974,  after being bugged into joining the department by his friend, David Millet. 

 Yates joined the department on a Monday night. Wednesday night, a large fire broke out on Winter Street. 

“We had to rescue the people from inside of the house. They were still sound asleep, and didn’t know the house was on fire. I didn’t do the rescue, but the fire chief at the time, Bob Butters, and I can’t remember who was with him … they went in and said, “your house is on fire! I guess we better get you out of here,” said Yates. 

I didn’t have any training at all. I’d only been here two days. We grabbed a nozzle, and away we went,” said Yates. That first fire was the first of many Yates would fight  in his 45 years as both a firefighter and as a chief. 

Back then, there weren’t pagers like we have now. We had the horn on the opera house, and we had one on the fire station, the old brick building down by the radio station … we had the red phone system; what people would do is call you. The wives or sisters would say ‘we got a fire and so and so a place, and you better attend,” said Yates. 

In the early days, there were no thermal cameras, and the department only had two air packs that lasted about 15 minutes a piece. Yates said firefighters would stick a wet sponge as a primitive way of keeping the smoke from entering lungs. Yates learned the ins and outs of firefighting, how to pump the trucks and maintain the equipment.

Yates never took to pumping trucks, and always yearned to be inside the fire and flame.

“It was warmer inside,” laughed Yates. 

Now that I’m a chief, I don’t go in very much. I stand outside, freezing to death. I’m not much for cold weather. So, [back then], I said, I’m going inside. When you come out, you’re soaking wet from the sweat, and usually they felt sorry for you, and said ‘alright, you go back to the station, we’ll clean up.'”

Yates tries to teach his crew to be versatile.

As I tell my guys now, you really need to learn both things.You’re not always going to be an internal, structural firefighter. When you get older, and don’t want to go in, we need pump operators. They’re just an important as the guy that goes in; if they mess up, you have no water, and that’s not a good thing,” said Yates. “Everybody has a job; it’s a team effort. Even the guy that rolls the hoses up after the fact.”

Yates said he doesn’t see himself as a boss, but a leader, and leaders don’t hold themselves above work that needs getting done.

“I’ll go out and roll a hose, I’ll wash trucks … they get after me even now, ‘why are you doing that, you’re the chief!’ and I say ‘that’s not how that works. If there’s work to do, we all do it’,” said Yates.

Yates likes to say that in the fire business, no business is good business, and prevention is key to stopping fires before they start. Yates said that’s why his favorite part of the job is teaching children about fire prevention.

Yates tells his Cub Scouts to make sure the smoke detectors in their homes work, the bedroom door is closed while sleeping, and to always have a second exit available.

Yates, as an educator, is also a lifelong learner.

“I go to school all the time … I’m always taking something, and I will until I retire. Things change,” said Yates. “To use an illustration, we used to take out windows all the time back in the ‘70’s. We learned now, because of scientific studies, that we don’t want to do that. We want to try and keep the air movement to a minimum, because once you feed (a fire) air, it gets bigger,” said Yates. 

Training is also vital to keeping his crew safe.

“You look at what happened out in Berwick, the guy’s crew was in trouble, and he gave his life to try and save his crew. It’s sad, but like I tell my guys, most of the time, a lot of the stuff we do is hum-drum, like fixing a flat tire for an elderly woman, but that fire could have taken a life just like nothing. That’s why we train, so we don’t get into those situations,” said Yates. 

Situations can get heated fast. One day while fighting a structure fire in Oxford, Yates said his wife, a former firefighter, fell through a floor and had to be rescued.

And apart from the physical danger, there’s an emotional cost.

It’s a sacrifice; there’s many meals that I’ve missed, I’ve been out Christmas Day, Thanksgiving Day … if that tone goes off, it doesn’t matter if you’re having a birthday party for your one-year-old. You’ve got to go,” said Yates. 

But for Yates, firefighting is life.

And though time keeps inching forward, Yates said he’ll keep working for the next few years, or for as long as his body will allow him to keep fighting fires. Eventually, he wants to go on a cross-country trip with his wife.

But he’ll miss his work in the station.

For me it’s not a job. I don’t wake up in the morning and say ‘ugh, I have to go to work today,” Yates said. “This isn’t work, this is a calling. If I can help somebody, I’d stay up 24/7.”

The idea of helping others propels him.  It’s very rewarding, and that’s what I like about it, being able to help people. When they’re having their worst day, for us to help them out, you can’t explain it,” he said. 

But, of course, the flip-side of that euphoria comes when tragedy strikes. “It’s not always good, because we have fatalities. I was hoping I wouldn’t have any fatalities on my watch,” said Yates. 

And, even when the results aren’t fatal, fires can be absolutely devastating.

… you lose everything, pictures of your kids, grand-kids, and stuff that you have. It means something to people, whether your poor or rich, it still means something. It’s sad; we had a fire where a woman lost her dog, and she was bawling, and I just tried to console her the best I could. I said, he didn’t suffer. He wasn’t burned; the oxygen ran out, and he just went to sleep. That made her feel a little better, but she was still distraught,” said Yates.

Yates has a quote from the Vermont Fire Academy printed out on a board attached to a filing cabinet in his office. It reads ““I am not here for me; I am here for we, and we are here for them.” 

And as long as he can muster, Yates – and his crew – will be in the station, waiting for a call.

“Whether you’re male or female, we all put our pants on the same way, and our common goal is first of all to protect life and then protect environment and property … that’s how I look at it. Property is the last thing on that board. You can replace that. You can’t replace a life.”

 


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