Volunteer firefighter: 'It's not about one person'
BECKET — At Becket Fire Station No. 1 on Monday morning, Madelaine Elovirta hadn't yet fielded a question before she began talking about the rest of the Becket Volunteer Fire Department's members. She pulled up a group photo on her iPad.
"Can you use this picture?" she asked with the enthusiasm of a child trying to delay bedtime for another hour.
As a volunteer firefighter for 44-plus years, Elovirta is, by occupation and longevity, in no danger of shaking the "selfless" label anytime soon. But the assistant fire chief's altruism stands out even among her peers. Chief Mark Hanford warned this reporter that Elovirta may not want to be interviewed. She doesn't like the attention, he said.
"It's not about one person," the 70-year-old Elovirta said on Monday.
Yet, Elovirta is undeniably a pillar of a department that has served Becket since 1935, when the town's first Firemen's Association was formed. (Ten years earlier, P.B. McCormick was tapped to be Becket's first fire chief.) The department's coverage area includes all 48.6 square miles of Becket, as well as Washington. Additionally, the department "mutual-aids" to surrounding towns, such as Middlefield, Chester, Otis and Lee.
"Whoever calls us," Elovirta said.
Becket's two fire stations host a roster of 31 men and women holding a variety of different occupations, including maintenance and consulting. That is, until they get paged for lift assists, medical problems, car accidents, carbon monoxide alarms and, of course, fires. In 2017, the volunteers responded to 125 calls.
"As in any department, no matter whose department it is, whether it's paid or volunteer, you bring strengths and weaknesses. Some are afraid of heights. Some are great truck drivers. Some can see the whole picture," said Elovirta, who recently retired after working at Becket-Chimney Corners YMCA as an administrative assistant.
Berkshire County isn't alone in having a strong volunteer firefighter presence. Across the U.S. in 2015, 70 percent of firefighters were volunteers, and 67 percent of departments entirely consisted of volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Becket's department wasn't always so robust. In 1973, daytime coverage was down to two men. One was in his 70s, and the other was in his 80s, according to Elovirta. Chief Hubert Salvini recognized the problem and proposed a solution that, at the time, was rare: invite women to join the force. Elovirta remembers the call vividly.
"The word went out that women were welcomed to come together. That night in June, we had 35 women show up. And when it was explained what they were going to do, the next meeting we had nine because they didn't think — not everybody was on board with learning how to drive the truck, learning how to pump water, learning how to hold a hose," the Pittsfield native recalled.
What drew Elovirta to those initial gatherings?
"At the age of 15, my parents' house burnt to the ground," she said, later noting that a wood stove was the fire's cause. "As you can well imagine — and I was the youngest of four — all of a sudden your security is gone. What was your security, what you came to as an infant ... is no longer there. It's just a pile of rubble. So when the call went out, it was kind of like, 'Well, I could do this. I think I could do this.' I was born and raised on a farm, so mechanical and gender bias was not there. If a job needed to be done, it didn't care what you were. You did the job. That part of it was just a no-brainer to me. And the other part was to see if I could get more understanding of what happened and why a house went to the ground. What was the trigger, what made it, what caused it, and how could we have stopped it if we could've?"
The department's officers trained the nine remaining women, who were all young mothers, on Monday nights.
"It was a good working relationship because we didn't know anything. We didn't know the difference between a male and a female end of a hose. We didn't know the proper words," Elovirta said.
There were some funny moments along the way.
"I wished I'd had a camera the night [Salvini] explained to a group of young women the difference between a male end and a female end of a hose. Political correctness had not been invented back then. It was just — his face was so red, and he was so stumbling over words, and it was just a hoot," Elovirta said of the chief, who died last year at 88.
The male firefighters met on Tuesday nights. Not all were receptive to the idea of women becoming their colleagues.
"We had growing pains, as you can well imagine. Some of the men were not real happy. We had a couple quit," she recalled.
But most of the men embraced the women.
"It was a group of people who could've been very cold and could've shut the door on us who didn't, who saw the need and said, we can do this. Let's teach them," Elovirta said.
The women got their first call during the late summer or early fall of 1973. It was a track fire, a common culprit in the area over the years.
"All of us girls went. We had our boots on, we had our rakes, we had our shovels, we had our brooms. And the fire chief sent us home," Elovirta said referring to Salvini.
The women weren't happy.
"As we left that fire scene, he was not called nice names," Elovirta said.
During the next Monday meeting, Salvini immediately apologized, according to Elovirta.
"That was the only time we were ever sent home. After that, he was careful with us. He would protect us. If it was something he thought we couldn't handle, he'd kind of shift us out to the edges," she said.
The women had to work together more than the men to complete tasks. She described a photo of her and several other female firefighters published in The Eagle on Nov. 22, 1974.
"In the picture, it shows us putting [the] suction on a truck. We didn't have the strength that a man does to put the suction on the truck, spin the wheel, and we're good to go. We had to get a rubber hammer to tighten it down because if you have air, if it's not tight and there's air, the suction's not there. You lose your suction," Elovirta said.
The group of nine women stuck together for "a very long time." When the entire department started meeting together on the same night, some women left.
"You didn't have as many women coming out. It wasn't the sisterhood anymore. It was the department. And I don't think anybody was made to feel that they needed to go. I think it was just a case of, this doesn't work for me anymore. I need to move on," she said.
Today, there are three women on the roster. Elovirta no longer takes night calls, but is still very much involved in the department's office and field work. She has considered leaving at times during her career, especially when she was an EMT, an additional duty she performed for about 25 years. Deaths have been difficult to stomach, but Elovirta said Becket has been fortunate.
"Yes, we've had structure fires. Yes, we've had car accidents. We've had fatalities, but on the whole, not a lot of them," she said.
One of the highlights of Elovirta's career was working on a grant application to the Department of Homeland Security for a new 3,000-gallon tanker in 2007.
"None of us had ever written a grant. None of us," she said.
The department's application for $180,500 was accepted.
"This is my pride and joy," she said, pointing to a photo of the tanker.
Her affection for the vehicle is still trumped by her affinity for her town, where she has lived since she married William Elovirta (who is also a Becket firefighter) on May 29, 1965, and her family. It's why she continues to volunteer.
"I live in this town. I raised my children in this town. I will die in this town," she said. "I don't want anybody to ever have a time when they need fire protection, and nobody's there to answer that call. Even though I'm not doing night calls [anymore] — and this isn't about me, everybody is the same way — ... you still listen to make sure somebody's going."
Jeannie Maschino contributed research for this story.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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