'He brought this place to where it is now': Hinsdale fire chief of 26 years retiring

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HINSDALE — Larry Turner remembers the first time he rushed into a burning building like it was yesterday. Really, it was more than 40 years ago.

"The first time you go into a burning building, you say to yourself, `Why am I in here?,'" Turner said one recent afternoon at the Hinsdale fire station, as a scanner buzzed in the background. "This is so against your natural instinct."

He has since gone into hundreds of fires, as a volunteer firefighter and as a chief. Turner joined the department in 1974, when he was 24 and working at a local gas station.

But after serving for 26 years as the Hinsdale fire chief — he was the longest-serving chief in town history — Turner retired from his post Sunday, turning over the reins to his longtime assistant chief, Ralph Cormier.

While the number of volunteers at the department has grown from about 20 to 40, and gear has significantly advanced, the reward of helping those in need has remained Turner's favorite part of the job.

"Today's fires are so much different because of all the plastics that are in the houses. A fire today burns quicker and hotter than fires used to," Turner recalled. "You have to be good at watching the smoke, watching what's going on around you to tell you if you should get your butt out of there."

Luckily, protective gear has kept up with the times, he said. Unfortunately, though, with the new gear encapsulating a firefighter's head, they can no longer use the heat on their ears as an indicator of when to leave, according to Turner.

"You could stay in there too long and get yourself into trouble if you're not careful," he said. "We've been very fortunate. We've had very few major fires in town in a long time."

From the beginning, one of Turner's missions as chief was to ensure that his team was safe on the job.

Cormier, 58, joined the department when he was 18 and has been assistant chief as long as Turner has been chief. He credits Turner for building the department's two firefighter rehab units, two refurbished buses where firefighters can cool down and recover after battling a blaze.

"They go all over the county because firefighters need to be rehabbed," Cormier said. "He took it upon himself, he got all the stuff. ... He built them."

Turner recalled the afternoon in the 1990s when he realized that the stations would be essential for the town.

There was a muster — a firefighter parade and competition — being held in town when the call came in for a two-car crash at a Route 8 intersection. The firefighters, who were in dress uniforms and gear, spent 40 minutes trying to extricate one of the drivers who had "submarined" under the steering wheel.

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"When we finally got her out, got her in the ambulance and took her to the helicopter, I looked over and 10 of our guys were whipped puppies. Their tongues were hanging out, dragging," he recalled. "They worked as hard as they could in the heat of the day and a light bulb went off; we got to do something to protect these guys."

So, using money from the Hinsdale Volunteer Fireman's Association, Turner found inexpensive equipment and built the units.

His other legacy was the creation of the support unit, a team of volunteers who can't fight fires but are on the scene to help with hoses, refill air supplies and other assistance.

During fires, there needs to be at least two firefighters on the scene before they can go into a building. That can be a challenge in a small town with a volunteer department, Turner said.

"If I've got firefighters doing rehab and other activities, then I don't have them to fight the fire in the house," he said. "Probably 15 years ago we instituted a support group. If someone wanted to join, if someone was an accountant and wanted to do our books, we'd let them come join. You can come and join and do anything you're capable and want to do. You don't have to be an interior firefighter."

"We have talented people here, but the things he has done for the department are probably going to be hard to top," Cormier said of Turner.

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One of the biggest challenges that the department faces is the ability to recruit and retain EMTs.

"It's very difficult to get a full crew of EMTs to man the ambulances," he said. "There's times when we don't get the full crew and we go help the person but we can't transport, so we have to have Dalton or County or Action [ambulance services] come and do the transport for us."

Turner said that the amount of training deters some people from becoming an EMT, but, for those who don't mind the sight of blood, it can be a great experience.

Turner has been an EMT for almost 45 years; his wife, Cathy, has been an EMT for 30.

"When you're doing CPR on someone all the way to the hospital and they survive, that's one of the most rewarding things," he said.

Turner hopes that more residents, including the department's five junior firefighters ages 13 to 18, will take on the role of an EMT in the future.

Firefighting has been a central part of Turner's life for decades. Before retiring from Crane & Co. in the early 2000s, it took up a majority of free time.

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"It's eight hours to sleep and that's it," Turner said about being a volunteer fire chief and holding a full-time job.

With the extra time in his future, Turner hopes to finish a project he started over 30 years ago: to rebuild an old Chevrolet. When he bought the car, he was racing cars at Lebanon Valley Speedway in New York.

"I'm hoping to get that on the road and running with a little more time. I bought it over 30 years ago," he said. "I've probably been actively working on it for the last 15. Here and there, I buy parts for it when I have some extra money."

But for at least the next year, Turner expects to remain active in the local department.

In Massachusetts, firefighters have to retire by age 70. Turner decided to leave his position as chief this year so he can spend his last year overseeing Cormier's transition.

"I have to get out when I'm 70, so I figured I'd take a year to slow down, be a grunt and help them in any way I can," he said.

In the long haul, Turner is hoping to work with the town and the Fire Department's association on a partnership that would allow the volunteers who are 70 and older to continue to help out on scenes. Currently, that's prohibited due to liability reasons.

"I would be able to do that, to stick around," he said. "That's what were looking at now, to keep our 70-year-olds going because they want to keep going.

"I've been assistant chief as long as he's been chief, so it's been a pleasure," Cormier said. "He's a jack-of-all-trades, master of them all. He can do anything, and he does everything. He brought this place to where it is now."

Turner said that he feels lucky to have worked in a town that has been so appreciative of the department's work, and he knows he's leaving the position in capable, and dedicated, hands.

"I don't believe that your average person not involved understands the commitment and the time that volunteer firefighters put into the job. Ninety percent of the time it's for a smile and a thank-you with no money involved at all," he said. "When you run out that door when the pagers go off, your family doesn't know if you're coming back home or not."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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