- 29 August 2003
Fire Chief David Flannery puts the "Power" in "Staying Power"
While they may not actually appear in any Book of World Records, some of the facts about Fire Chief David Flannery's life do seem record-setting in the category of longevity. Born in 1954, he has lived in the same house since he was one year old. He has worked in the custodial department of the Carlisle Schools since he was fourteen, and has been a volunteer firefighter with the Carlisle Fire Department since 1973.
The notion of steadfastedness as an esteemed character trait may seem a bit quaint. In a society and economy where nimble adaptation to change is often more valuable than tenacity, it's easy to overlook the value of the opposite: defining one's life through certain long-held practices and principles. And yet to hear the story of Flannery's career is to discover the undeniable grace of a life in which certain decisions made decades ago have stood the test of time.
"My great-great-great-great- grandfather, Mike Flannery, emigrated from Galway to Boston during the Great Potato Famine," Flannery recounts. "He got a job with the Boston & Maine Railroad, and was planning to work his way to Maine and bring his family over here. He was constructing the section of railroad that ran past Walden Pond when he met a man who lived in a cabin in the woods there. That man befriended him and loaned him some money to bring his family here, so they stayed in Concord."
Thanks to the magnanimity of one Henry David Thoreau, four more generations of Flannerys were born in Concord, including David, who moved to Carlisle with his parents in 1955, when he was one year old. "My grandfather owned a small piece of property on Concord Street in Carlisle which was the frontage to a larger piece of property owned by Waldo Wilson's mother. When she died, my father approached Waldo to inquire about buying the larger piece to build a house. Waldo sold my parents eight acres of land for eight hundred dollars." To this day, Flannery still lives with his mother in the house his parents built, and Waldo Wilson, Carlisle's fire chief from 1929 to 1979, would become Flannery's mentor in the Fire Department.
Flannery had just completed eighth grade in Carlisle when the school offered him a summer job with the custodial staff. Thrilled with the opportunity to become a wage-earner, he had to get permission from his parents before accepting the offer. He kept the job throughout high school, and it became a full-time position once he graduated and began an associate's degree at Middlesex Community College. In 1979, Flannery was named Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds for the Carlisle Schools, a position he has held ever since.
During one of those summer days he spent working at the school as a teenager, Flannery had a visit from Town Accountant and Fire Chief Waldo Wilson who invited the teenage Flannery to join his corps of volunteer fire fighters. It was something Flannery had never considered. Tongue-tied, he answered Wilson's invitation quite candidly by saying that he didn't know if he wanted to be a firefighter.
"Chief Wilson got quite angry with me," Flannery recalls now. "He said, 'Why don't you know?' I said I really hadn't ever thought about it. A week later, he asked me if I'd made up my mind, so I said yes. He came back and gave me my boots."
Shortly after becoming a firefighter, Flannery earned his EMT certification, also at Wilson's urging. In 1979, Wilson retired and Bob Koning took over as fire chief. One Sunday afternoon, Flannery got a phone call from his new boss, who said he needed help with a few things around the house. What actually transpired that day came as a complete surprise. "Chief Koning popped the question: he asked me to be his deputy fire chief," Flannery laughs. "I told him I didn't feel prepared for such a huge responsibility. I don't know how he did it, but he convinced me that very day." Flannery's acceptance was contingent upon Koning supporting his wish to complete several more levels of training in fire fighting, medical emergency response and personnel management.
Flannery admits that by becoming chief, which happened officially on Jan. 1, 2003, he was compelled to give up some of his most cherished responsibilities. Recruitment and training of volunteers were among his favorite tasks as a deputy chief. Now he has had to pass many of those duties along to his own deputy, Jonathan White. Even with the support of Deputy Chief White, along with a fire captain and two lieutenants who help him to oversee a staff of 27 fire fighters, Flannery's typical day is a dizzying rush between two completely different professional positions and his home life. "I leave the house by 5:30 a.m. and check in at Town Hall," he says. "Then I stop by the Fire Station to listen to phone messages and do whatever else needs to be done early in the day. From there I go to the school, where the best time for me to get desk work done is between six and eight in the morning. After eight, it gets pretty busy." Flannery supervises a staff of eight; their responsibilities cover maintenance and upkeep for the entire Carlisle School campus.
Throughout the school day, Flannery maintains constant communication with the dispatcher and the Fire Department. At lunchtime, he frequently stops by the station again. "I leave the school around four, go to the post office to pick up mail, go back to the station, and get home by six." Frequently, his time at home allows for little more than dinner, a few phone calls and a glimpse at the evening news before he has to return to the Fire Station for a weekly training or head to Town Hall for a meeting. "And then, of course, I have to go out on calls," he concludes, referring to emergencies that require a response from the fire fighters.
Currently, the roster of fire fighters is almost all male; Flannery would greatly like to see more women serve both as fire fighters and EMTs. The question that constantly arises in his position is how long Carlisle can sustain its emergency response system with a volunteer corps. The answer, Flannery says, depends not on the town's population or budget but on the willingness of civilians to continue volunteering their time and efforts. He ardently hopes to maintain the system as it has been since 1929. To change over to a full-time, paid department, he says, would signify "the end of a long heritage of volunteerism, community spirit and giving. The men and women of this department put their hearts and souls into what they're doing."
As most of us know, Thoreau went to the woods because he "wanted to live deliberately." A small loan he reportedly made while doing so led eventually to the existence of the man with whom much of Carlisle's infrastructure and civic well-being now rest. It's easy to imagine that Thoreau would be pleased with how far his money has gone. In his devotion to the Carlisle school and his dreams for the future of the fire department, Flannery is clearly a man for whom steadfastedness represents a glorious asset.
(Part II of this series will appear in September and will examine in greater detail the machinations and challenges of running a volunteer fire department.)