‘It’s time:’ Plainfield Fire Chief Alvord hangs up his helmet

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. “It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.”

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. “It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.” FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department.

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. “It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.”

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. “It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.” FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. “It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.”

Fire Chief David Alvord on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex in Plainfield. Alvord is retiring after 48 years with the department. “It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.” FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-24-2024 4:14 PM

PLAINFIELD — In 48 years with the local fire department, David Alvord has seen plenty of changes.

In 1976, there were fewer than 10 firefighters in a town with half the population it has today.

Compared to the automatic mutual aid system in place today, fire calls were a hit-and-miss proposition.

“We used the old red phone system, a phone tree,” Alvord said. “We had a siren on the fire station.”

While the volume of calls, the size of the department and the population have all increased since then, some things have stayed the same. It’s still a volunteer department, everyone has at least one other job, and it’s still a struggle to find enough people willing to join.

That’s just a partial explanation for why Alvord, 74, has only now reached the point of retiring.

“It’s definitely time,” he said. “It really was time five years ago, when I became chief.”

At that point, Alvord had been assistant chief for 33 years under Dennis Thatcher, a third-generation farmer who at 28 had been the youngest fire chief in Massachusetts when he was appointed in 1986 on the death of former chief “Dutch” Hathaway.

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“(Thatcher) asked me to become the assistant chief,” Alvord said. “We were going to go out together.”

Sadly, Thatcher succumbed to cancer and died at 62. The department asked Alvord to step in as chief.

Because of his age — 69 — Alvord had to request a home rule exemption to allow him to take the job. The plan was for him to hold it for a couple of years, enough time to find someone else to take over. He said he did find someone, only when it came time for him to take over he dropped out, and Alvord had to start the process all over again.

Now, Robert Shearer is ready to take the reins.

“He’s been on the department a long time,” Alvord said. “He’s very talented — and he’s in his late 40s.”

Ski center

A transplant from Connecticut, Alvord arrived in Plainfield in 1976 with a group that was going to open a cross country ski area on a 600-acre farm.

“We opened Cummington Farm and we ran it for about nine years,” he said.

He got out of the ski business because it was so dependent on fickle weather and soon took a job as an advertising representative for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

One of the events Cummington Farm tried to spin some money out of was a balloon festival, and that brought him into contact with the co-publisher of the Gazette.

“I knew Charlie DeRose because I sold him a hot air balloon,” Alvord said. “He was interested in ballooning, and I tried to solicit the Gazette for advertising.”

He remembers his three decades at the paper fondly.

“Those were the good years,” he said. “I ended being the Florence rep and the Hilltown rep. I got to know Florence well.”

The ski area went through a few different incarnations, Alvord said, being bought by an investment group, then Heritage Bank, then Peter Laird of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame, becoming a camp for troubled teens. It’s now home to the Swift River drug treatment center.

Better training

He joined the Plainfield Fire Department right off the bat, and became an emergency medical technician in 1982, before regional ambulance services came into being.

“We had the Cummington ambulance staffed by volunteers from Cummington and Plainfield,” he said.

Most of the training in those days was done in house, then the different departments started working together and bringing in outside trainers.

“We were searching for better training,” he said. “We spent a lot of time going to southern Vermont, southwestern New Hampshire. They were ahead of western Mass in those days.”

In the 1990s, he said, the county fire groups started forming and a program called Basic 6 was begun. Training requirements have continued to grow since then.

“It’s hard for anyone who’s not a full-time firefighter to get training,” he said. “It’s a challenge for us. Most everyone works a regular job or two. It’s hard to find time for training, even find time to respond to calls.”

Rural departments’ firefighter rosters go up and down.

“Two years ago I had 21,” he said. “Now we’re down to 14. That’s the way it goes.”

Always on call

At the same time, the number of calls, mostly medical, has increased considerably.

“We had 155 calls last year,” Alvord said. “Twenty years ago it was 50 to 60.”

An aging population is one factor in the increase, plus people’s expectations of service have grown, he said.

The nature of the fires themselves has changed, with more plastic and electronics that burn hot and give off poisonous gases, creating a shorter window of time for people to escape.

And emergencies can intervene at any time.

“On Saturday (June 15) they had a surprise retirement party for me in the middle of the day,” Alvord said. “Half an hour before, we got called out to a bad accident. It turned out to be fatal.”

When he arrived at the scene, he was surprised to see the firefighters working in their dress blue shirts. Despite the difficult assignment, when he got back to the station they were lined up to applaud him.

“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” he said. “The bottom line is, if you come and stick on a department like ours, you’re doing some good stuff.”

Town support is key, he said, and he feels positive about the way he’s leaving the department.

“Many have contributed to where we are. We have a beautiful facility,” he said. “Of all the vehicles there’s only one that the town had to buy outright. The rest were acquired through grants.

“We’re in a pretty good position.”

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.