Carlisle's fire chief Bob Koning steps down

As the snow began to fall last Thursday afternoon at the fire station, Robert J. ("Bob") Koning reflected on his 41 years of service with the Carlisle Fire Department, the last 25 years spent as chief. When he retires on January 1, he will leave behind many accomplishments that have improved the safety of Carlisle and the region.

Bob Koning's association with Carlisle began in 1944, when his family moved into a house just across the border in Westford that was part of the original Carlisle train depot. Koning moved to Carlisle after he married, and has lived on Acton Street for many years. He and his wife, Mary Lou, have four children, and two of them are now raising their families here as well. Their other two children live in New Hampshire. There are currently five Koning grandchildren, all in Carlisle.

When asked if any relatives had ever had misgivings about his work as a firefighter, Koning replied, "My wife is a patient person. It took 10 years to build the fire station, and I was out to meetings five nights a week for years." Also, at one point "for some strange reason, every Christmas Eve we were called to Lowell on a mutual-aid fire. It was always a large mill fire somewhere in the city. So my family had to have a lot of patience with me. But misgivings, I don't think they ever thought about it. Today (after 9/11) people are a lot more aware of what we are doing."

How the fire department has changed

The fire department has changed dramatically over the years. The size and organization of the department, the facilities and workload have all changed as the town has grown.

For example, when Koning became deputy fire chief 29 years ago, the department had only six members. Today there are 32. Koning explained, "The reason for the amount of people is that they aren't always available. It's a call department." Many work out of town during the day, and volunteer nights or weekends.

On-call firefighters are paid a small stipend and receive pay for the hours they work. Typically, full-time firefighters are paid for a forty-hour week, including benefits. Three shifts a day would be needed to provide 24-hour coverage, and the fire station would need additional rooms for sleeping quarters.

The firefighters are organized into groups, or companies of five or six people each. Sometimes two companies are needed to answer one call. The department has always had a chief and deputy chief. Since Koning began, the positions of captain, lieutenant and emergency medical services director have been added. This ensures that there is an officer on almost every run. Koning said this "gives better direction" to the rescue personnel.

There are no women currently in the fire department, but Koning has encouraged women to join, and he praised the job done by the several women who worked in the fire department over the past 30 years. He said the last woman resigned two or three years ago, when her family commitments increased.

Asked if the age distribution has changed over the years, Koning replied, "In the last five years, we've been able to get a lot of younger folk, which is needed. You must start young. They are dedicated people, and they do a good job. I'm thankful every day that these people are here. This town is a much safer place because of them."

Koning noted that good equipment and excellent training are needed to prepare the firefighters for their hazardous job. "These people don't do this to make money. They do it because they want to. They are your neighbors. They take their job very seriously." Koning praised the town's support for the fire department.

Growing workload

The number of calls has risen dramatically in the past 41 years. The growth in population explains much of the increase, but other factors also contribute. The number of medical calls, Koning said, has risen "tremendously," and "there are very few of those that aren't legit." He has noticed that quite a few seniors have moved to town to live with their children. Also, Koning said hospitals have changed. Over the years, 14 area hospitals have closed, and the remaining hospitals send people home sooner. When people are sent home sooner, it is more likely that some will need to return to the hospital, sometimes repeatedly. Koning said that at times they've had to "send people in three times in four days...."

Koning said that false alarms from homes with automatic alarm systems have increased the number of fire calls, but he recently sent letters to houses experiencing repeated false alarms, and he said the families have been cooperative in repairing their systems.

The table below was compiled from data in the town's annual reports. The chief writes the yearly summaries for the fire department. Koning doesn't think many people read the town reports, especially since the town stopped mailing them to each home. He said, "The new folks don't know to ask for them [at town hall.].... I think they should go back to mailing them. It's still a document that every taxpayer in this community should have."

Year Pop. Tot. calls Medical Fire
1960 1,488 71    
1970 2,871 98    
1980 3,306 225 71 154
1985 3,862 321 108 213
1990 4,379 237 124 113
1995 4,503 310 142 168
2000 4,923 383 151 232
2001 5,065 421 171 250

Toughest challenge

The toughest challenge, Koning said, has always been maintaining an on-call department. Carlisle is now the last town within the Route 495 radius that still has an on-call fire department. He cited two main reasons other towns switched to the more expensive, full-time departments. One reason is growth. Koning said it would be hard to run an on-call department for a town as large as Acton. But many smaller towns have also lost their on-call departments, and Koning said, "I think the number one thing that killed them was poor management."

Advances in medical assistance

One of the major milestones during Koning's tenure was the creation of Carlisle's ambulance service. Prior to 1977, people were driven to the hospital in a police cruiser, or an ambulance was called from Bedford. The first time a request to buy an ambulance was brought to Town Meeting, it was voted down. Koning said "It was very hard....People didn't understand." He remembers one harrowing experience trying to help an elderly heart patient, with fluid building up in the heart. It was night, and about 10 degrees out. He said, "If we'd called the ambulance from Bedford, the person would have been dead. It would have been 30 minutes or an hour," before the ambulance arrived. With difficulty, the very ill person was kept upright (as medically required) and driven to the hospital in a station wagon. The patient survived. It wasn't long afterwards that Carlisle voted to buy an ambulance. Koning applauded the decision, "It's been one of the best things we've had here."

Now Carlisle has not only it's own emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and ambulance, it also receives Advanced Life Support (ALS) out of Emerson Hospital. Sixteen years ago Koning helped found the ALS program, which serves 14 towns in the area. Their medical personnel have greater training, and can do more to help patients while en route to the hospital. When someone calls 911 the Carlisle dispatcher asks a series of questions about the patient's condition, including whether the patient is conscious and breathing. Depending on the answers, the dispatcher will call for ALS as well as the Carlisle EMTs, which is why passers-by sometimes will notice two ambulances parked outside a house. The ALS team usually arrives only two to three minutes after Carlisle's ambulance.

Koning is proud of Carlisle's response time, which is within a couple of minutes of full-time fire departments. "The response time is unbelievable — five or six minutes, day or night."

Another advance is the helicopter rescue for serious trauma cases, where it is important to get the victim to specialized care as quickly as possible. Koning said the helicopters fly out of Hanscom Field, and land at one of four or five pre-set landing areas in town, including the school, fire station, Saint Irene, and another spot near the bog. The service is needed about once a year, and trauma victims are flown out of town and taken to the University of Massachusetts trauma center in Worcester.

Fire station

The Carlisle Fire Station on Westford Street, December 2002. (Photo by Midge Eliassen
Another major milestone during Koning's tenure was building the current fire station. After maintaining the department's on-call status, Koning said "the other biggest task was this building." It took many years before Town Meeting agreed to build the present facility in 1985. Various plans were considered and rejected, including a plan to build a combined police, fire and DPW facility. Koning said that at times, "it was like pushing a rock uphill."

The station has functioned well during the past two decades, but may need to be expanded in the future, according to Koning. For instance, the garage area is now full, and it's hard to fit everyone into the meeting room.

Koning thinks it will be relatively inexpensive to add another garage bay out back because the cinder-block rear wall was designed to be removable, and the preliminary blasting was already done to flatten the area. The building was also designed to accept a second-floor addition, which may someday be needed for sleeping and living quarters for a full-time fire department. Because the station is located in the center of town and can be expanded, Koning said Carlisle will "never need a second fire station."

Concerns for the future

The Koning family gathers around as Bob receives the Most Honored Citizen Award at Old Home Day in July. (Photo by Ellen Huber)
Koning was a little reluctant to talk about the future of the fire department after his January 1 retirement, but he hopes the department will keep its on-call organization as long as possible.

His yearly summaries in the town's annual reports have mentioned two additional concerns: water supplies and long-term planning for the facilities.

Koning said the town may want to install a few water cisterns in areas without enough water for dousing fires. It costs about $75,000 to build a 20,000 gallon cistern. Koning said the town center needs more coverage, as does the Oak Knoll area. Ninety-five percent of the fire ponds were seasonal, Koning said, and with the current drought there are ponds dry now that he's never seen dry before.

The fire chief works with the planning board to assure the safety of proposed subdivisions. Twenty years ago the town began requiring new subdivisions to provide underground water cisterns for fire safety. The first cisterns were 5,000 gallons, and gradually the town has requested larger cisterns, with the norm currently 20,000 gallons. Each cistern has a pump to keep it filled, and they are less vulnerable to drought than the fire ponds. Koning said "The cisterns work well." The town has about 27 now, all built at no cost to the taxpayer.

Koning expressed confidence in his successor, David Flannery, "I'm so pleased that it's going into good hands." Flannery has been a Carlisle firefighter and EMT for many years, serving since 1979 as deputy chief. Koning said he has enjoyed working with Flannery and will miss that when he retires from the fire department.

Other jobs

Bob Koning is a man who wears many hats. After he retires as fire chief, he will continue serving as the town's building commissioner. He runs the building department, which includes plumbing, gas and electrical inspections. He is also the enforcement officer for Carlisle's zoning bylaws (the police enforce the general bylaws.) Even with the recent down-turn in the economy, the construction business remains active in town.

His experience in the private sector complements his work supervising construction projects. Since 1979, Koning has been president of an electrical contracting business that works in Boston. They specialize in commercial projects, colleges and hospitals. They worked with Fleet Bank, and have worked on the power and communications systems for Boston's hospitals. His company also built the lighting for Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Koning said, "My son Rob is pretty well running the business now. I try to give them one day a week now. They're doing well."

The fire chief is also the town's civil defense director, and serves on the hazardous waste and ADA committees. For many years Koning served as Keeper of the Town Clock. The clock is located in the steeple of the First Religious Society on the Town Common, and is reached by climbing a series of stairs and ladders, Koning explained. "I took that over from Mr. Forsythe a long time ago. His legs were going. Once a week it needs winding. My son Rob has been doing it for several years now."

Koning felt Carlisle is lucky to still have a town clock that keeps accurate time. "You drive around and you'll see many churches where the clock doesn't run." He hopes the town will continue the tradition of the hand-wound, chiming clock on the green.

Future plans

David Flannery (left), soon to be the new fire chief in January, stands with Bob Koning in front of the old fire truck. (Photo by Molly Sorrows)

Koning doesn't plan any other major changes in his life once he retires from the fire department. The job as building commissioner will continue to take up quite a bit of time. Earlier he had mentioned the excellent cross-country skiing he'd discovered in Montana when visiting a daughter who had lived there. "I probably will do more skiing, and more cross-country skiing." Bob Koning admitted, "I've got to keep busy someplace....I'm a very active person, and retirement isn't in my schedule."

The snow was still falling as the interview ended. It was getting dark and the roads were slippery. While the interview had gone on upstairs, sounds could occasionally be heard in the garage below as doors were opened and closed and engines started. The fire department personnel worked smoothly, and only once was Koning called out to answer a question. Just before the interview ended, Carlisle's on-call fire department left on its fourth mission in two hours.