CONWAY — On a recent Monday evening, members of the Conway Village Fire Department gathered at the fire station for their monthly emergency medical services training — practicing how to extricate an accident victim (in reality, a plastic dummy) from under a vehicle, onto a stretcher and into an ambulance, all while checking his vital signs.
Participating in the exercise under the watchful eye of Capt. Josh MacMillan were longtime EMT (and Conway Selectman chair) David Weathers, Capt./Paramedic Matt Leavitt, firefighter/EMTs Garrett Meador, Josh Greenblatt, Ben Croce and Amanda LaRusso, pre-med student Allison Solomon and Chris Broughton-Bossong, advanced EMT.
The young men and women were following in the footsteps of their firefighting brethren, who have served the village over the past 100 years.
To commemorate that milestone, a banner proudly hangs at the firestation reading, “100 Years of Service to the Community, 1919-2019.”
According to Janet M. Hounsell and Ruth Horne’s book, “Conway, New Hampshire 1765-1997,” the Conway Fire Department was chartered in February 1907, “but it was 1919 before it evolved into an organized entity.”
Hounsell and Horne also note that the North Conway Fire Department was organized in February 1917 — but then as now, Conway has never had townwide fire coverage. Individual departments serve the precincts of North Conway, Center Conway, East Conway, Conway Village and Redstone.
Early names who have served as chief or who were especially active with the department over the years included Harry Robinson, Earl Warren, Frank Colbroth, Stetson Archibald, George Young, Frank Philbrick, William B. (Ted) Hounsell, Bruce Corner, “Duchy” McClellan and Ray “Bowser” Lord, as well as Bert Macomber, Ed Hurley, Ernest Blake, Arthur Potter, Glen Hale, Fran Deasy and Thom Steele.
Hounsell and Horne also credit Chick Whitcomb, Henry Hill, Blake, Roger Rand and George Young with forming the first rescue team in 1947. That cause was furthered by Bradley Bemis, who joined the department in 1957 and led efforts to create a rescue squad in 1970 like North Conway’s, which had been created in 1963. In addition to Bemis, other charter members were Donald Newton, John Gaudreault, Wardwell Young, Thom Steele, Andy Greene, Leon Smith and Peter Grindle.
Others involved with the ambulance service were Richard White of Furber and White Funeral Home, Lee Frizzell and Dr. Frank Hubbell of SOLO.
One of the first major battles for the brand-new Conway Villiage Fire Department was attacking a fire that broke out in the steeple of the Conway Methodist Church, which had been struck by lightning in 1921.
The department went on to fight a blaze at the Pequawket Bakery in 1922; one in 1923 that wiped out the buildings on the entire west side of Main Street; the Spool Mill fire of May 1938; and a Conway Supply building fire that same year near the site of today’s Ham Arena.
In October 1940, the big Kennett Co. barn on Main Street burned — the cause was thought to be spontaneous combustion of stored hay. In 1943, fire destroyed the sawmill of the Kennett Lumber Company on what is now Hobbs Street.
The department also helped fight the Great Brownfield Fire of October 1947 in Maine.
In Conway Village, another memorable blaze was the one that destroyed Western Auto in February 1976 at the corners of Washington Street and Main Street. In more modern times, the 2005 fire that burned the 1930-built Majestic Theatre in the Bolduc Block Conway Village stands ou t— now, the Bolduc block is undergoing restoration for use by Mountain Top Music.
“Everyone always wants to talk of the big fires — but we always feel if we keep the fires small, we’ve done our jobs well,” said Fire Chief Steve Solomon, who began his firefighting career as a volunteer in Hillsborough and also served as chief in Tamworth for two years before coming to Conway to succeed Chief Larry Wade in 2007.
Chief Solomon follows a long line of esteemed chiefs who have served the department. In the meeting room of the CVFD, their portraits line the wall: Bertram Macomber 1919-35; Frank Kennett, 1936-47; Glen Hale, 1948-68; Ernest Blake, 1969-73; Fran Deasy, a former selectman and town moderator as well as fire chief, 1974-81; Thom Steele, 1982-92, Paul Richardson, 1992-93; and Larry Wade, 1994-2007.
Today, other members in the 30-person department include Deputy Chiefs Edwin Doe and Phil Richardson; Lts. Brad Gaudreault (whose father John also served), Carl Kempf and Josh Powers; and firefighters Nick Dukehart, Thom Steele, Christine Beres, Peter Howland, Mitch Gove, Andrew Conti, Bill Barbin, Robert Garland, Phil McCaffrey, Justin Moran, Sol Rosman and Phil Remington (both paramedics) and Ryan Smith, advanced EMT.
Serving as a symbol of the department’s centennial is a recently restored 1919 Ford Model T Engine 1, the department’s first engine. According to Solomon, it had been sold in 1938 to Charles Thompson of South Tamworth.
“It was used for parades in Tamworth and the Sandwich Fair,” notes Katie Thompson, proprietor of the Other Store in Tamworth and daughter of the late engine owner. After her father died in 1986, her brother Ted called the Conway Village Fire Department in the 1990s to see if it would be interested in buying it.
Spike Smith of Northeast Auto Body of Redstone did the body restoration and painting on the truck, probably in 1998. “It was kind of unusual because we also were working on the Zeb’s truck so we had two Model T’s under our roof at the same time,” Smith recalled.
Until last year, the 1919 engine had sat in the Lord Barn adjacent to the station, Solomon said. He and Meador decided to get it operational.
“We had to replace the head gasket and also reworked the cooling system," Solomon said.
They also found the bell that went missing after the truck was moved from South Tamworth to the Lord Barn.
“The bell," Solomon said, "had gotten moved from the old (1951) station to the new station in 2000 without getting discovered. It had been in a box here at the station.”
They had hoped to have the engine running in time for a department alumni reunion held May 5 at American Legion Post 46 in Conway, but it still needed a bit of work.
But they met the deadline of having the engine appear in Conway’s Independence Day Parade. The truck carried grand marshal Phyllis Sherman.
Meador, 30 — a fifth-generation member of the department; his great-great-grandfather Neal Thibodeau was a charter member — had the honor of driving Sherman.
“The engine drove really well, other than it had a leather timing belt and it overheated when it kept slipping off, but that was at the end, and we fixed it,” said Meador.
“I’m really happy to see that fire truck back running, because we put a lot of work into it,” said Conway Selectman and former fire department lieutenant Carl Thibodeau.
“My great grandfather Neal Thibodeau was on the department when members signed that first purchase order to get it in 1919, so after Mr. Thompson’s son called, I was part of the group that went down to South Tamworth to get it,” he said.
“Firefighting gets in your blood,” said Thibodeau, who retired from the fire department in 2008 after serving 31 years. “My dad, also Carl, joined in ’55 and served until the mid ‘80s, serving as deputy chief. And my late Uncle Glen also served.”
Thibodeau, 68, says as a kid, he used to accompany his father to the station house.
“I used to go with him down to the station, and would help out any way I could, helping to wash the engines,” said Thibodeau. “I would watch my dad get up in the middle of the night to rush out on a fire call, so you grow up with these things.”
Thibodeau’s first fire? The same one that was Weathers’ initial fire call: the Western Auto fire of 1976.
According to Hounsell's book, the temperatures that February night were well below zero.
“The bitterly cold, windy conditions made the men’s work especially unpleasant,” wrote Hounsell.
She added that the fire turned into quite a spectacle, "seen from great distances, since the building contained quantities of paint, ammunition and other combustibles.”
“Conway and North Conway Fire Departments and an estimated 25 firefighters from Madison and Center Conway” joined in a successful battle, she said, to contain the spread of the flames to the nearby Conway Cafe and Paul Whetton’s Form-a-Top building on Washington Street.
“It was pretty nasty, and cold in the dead of winter,” Thibodeau remembered.
Added Weathers, “I remember how low the smoke was to the street when we first got there.”
Weathers, 73, says he was drawn to volunteer with the department as a way to give back to the community.
“I had seen so much in the way of accidents and injuries that I just wanted to be part of it,” said Weathers, who was long employed with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and who is in his 19th year as selectman.
“I think that’s what drives everyone to volunteer,” he said, adding that when he started out the department was averaging 300 calls a year. Now, he said, it’s averaging about 1,300.
“It’s about 4 to 1, medical over fire calls,” he said.
He also said it’s about “50 percent between those you know and don’t know” when responding to calls.
“We have tourists, and we have locals so it’s about 50-50 for medical calls. Normally, in the way of fires, you know the local residents,” said Weathers.
Still, dealing with any call that involves serious injury or death is a challenge.
Conway department members were asked how they cope with such instances.
Wade, for example, with fellow department members responded to a motor vehicle accident call in June 2006 that resulted in his son Michael becoming a paraplegic.
MacMillan, whose son Josh is one of the department’s two captains with Matt Leavitt, son of former Center Conway Fire Chief Ray Leavitt, agreed that one learns to compartmentalize to get the job done.
“If you can help somebody, that’s the bottom line, and you’re there to help and to support your team as much as you can, using your expertise and training,” said MacMillan, who joined the department in 1980.
Though now retired from school administration, he remains an instructor at SOLO and serves the department. “It’s not for everyone, and some people who get the training after a few calls find that it is not for them, and that’s OK with us. We understand.”
“You try and stay focused,” said Weathers. “The worst calls by far for me are the ones that involve kids ... Fortunately, we don’t have as many SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) calls as we used to.”
They are, however, seeing more opioid calls. “Over the last three to four years, we have seen a major increase in that,” said Weathers.
In a tour of the fire house this week, prior to heading to Florida to pick up the department’s new “Quint” (quintuple combination pumper that serves the dual purpose of of an engine and a ladder truck), Solomon noted that fighting fires is only part of what CVFD personnel do.
The department has Swift Water Rescue to deal with high water and river rescues following the flooding of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.They assist in search and rescues, working with the White Mountain National Forest US Forest Service. They do rescue calls.
Mutual aid agreements with local regional departments are part of the firefighting protective umbrella that keeps the region safe.
It all adds up to a lot. It’s also hard to recruit new firefighters, given the demands of jobs, with many people in the area working two or three jobs in the valley or nationwide, leading to a shortage of firefighters. It also requires sacrifice by the spouses and families of those who serve.
There may be a lot more training than when the first charter members founded the department back in 1919, but as young CVFD firefighters and EMTS know, it’s part of the pride that they and all firefighters put into what for them is more than just a job — it’s a calling.