Falmouth's Last Call Firefighters Reflect On End Of Their Company

“Third-Call” Kelley still had his firefighter jacket hanging in his blue Ford pickup truck on Blueberry Lane in East Falmouth the morning of Wednesday, June 11, even though he will not be using it again.

“I’m gonna miss it,” Joseph F. Kelley Jr. said. He served as a call firefighter for over 30 years in the Falmouth department. The other firefighters in the Falmouth Fire and Rescue department called him Third-Call Kelley because he nearly always responded to the third call, the alarm of the call-firefighter company.

The call-firefighter tradition, which is more than 100 years old, is no longer. The department is run strictly through permanent positions, and department officials said the closure will have procedural effects.

Call-firefighters are firefighters who carry a beeper or a radio and can respond to the request of the department, whenever the need arises. They were paid hourly during the calls they responded to.

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Last week, Falmouth Fire Chief Mark Sullivan shared his gratitude for the last three call-firefighters in the department and honored them during a service at the Main Street headquarters. “Between the three of them, they had about 100 years of service to the town,” the chief said, “They gave a lot to town and they should be recognized.” US Representative William R. Keating was on hand for the ceremony to thank them for their service as well.

Selectmen agreed with Chief Sullivan’s request to close the longstanding program in May.

Richard Henry and Douglas L. Martin were the other two call-firefighters in the company. With Mr. Kelley, they were referred to as the Three Musketeers, Mr. Martin said.

“As a young stud, I did it for the excitement and the thrill of it,” Mr. Martin said. “It was rewarding. It was something good... almost like a hobby.”

The closure of the call company is not a shock to the department. Departments such as Sandwich, Yarmouth and Barnstable and others across the Cape, Massachusetts and the country are turning to full-time employee departments. “It’s been coming for a few years,” Chief Sullivan said.

He said the loss is a big change to the department. Until the mid-1980s, there were approximately 100 call-firefighters in the department. The chief said the department used to be able to handle two fires at once with call-firefighters. It was an unlimited force, he said. Now they rely on mutual aid from neighboring towns to back up stations when the department’s full-time firefighters are stretched thin.

Mr. Martin said that in the 1980s, the responsibility of the call-firefighter was reduced to mainly structure fires and more serious incidents, where before they had responded to a wider variety of calls. Eventually the department stopped hiring call-firefighters and the program went to attrition.

The final three call-men were responding to fewer and fewer calls as well.

“It was time,” Chief Sullivan said. The reasons for the slow loss is a shift in culture as well as liability issues.

“People are not able to take off as much time from their families or from their other jobs,” the chief said. Businesses in town, he said, were more apt to let their employees leave work to help the town as compared to now.

“It’s a change in times,” he said.

He also said the requirements for certifications for EMT and paramedic licenses and the time needed to maintain those credentials have kept the call-firefighter service from continuing. The Falmouth department has a policy to strictly hire personnel with paramedic credentials, which started about 10 years ago. The policy allows for more flexibility within the department.

The chief also noted that when a call-firefighter is injured in duty, the department would be held liable. This liability issue has led many departments to close down their call-firefighter departments, he said. And to continue the training program for call-firefighters was an expense to the town.

The Falmouth fire department started in 1897 with just a board and a chief. Board members and the chief were paid $2 a year, according to Gordon F. Todd in an article in Spritsail, a journal of Falmouth’s history. By 1905 the department had 95 call-men who were paid per response, the article read.

As a call-firefighters, “we had a good run and I’m sorry to see it go,” Mr. Kelley said.

Mr. Kelley has worked as a salesmen for The Fuel Company in Falmouth. He would carry his radio around with him at work during his years working for the department. He would have it on him during boating trips, when he went to sleep and at the dinner table.

“It was nothing to get rich off of but it was a rewarding job,” Mr. Kelley said. He recalled times such as when his dinner with another firefighter was cut short, so they could save a boy’s life, the time responding to a fire in the winter at the East Falmouth Laundromat near Davisville Road in which he remembers ice forming on his helmet, and tough calls like an automobile accident in which a young girl lost her life.

“Responding to a call is something you felt good about doing for someone else. It is in my blood. It was a rewarding job and I’m gonna miss it,”  he said.

The call-man said that he has no hard feelings about the town’s decision and he was ready to retire from the department anyway, but, with the loss of the call company, he said that young and hopeful career firefighters will lose a stepping-stone into the department.

“It’s the end of an era,” Douglas Martin said. Mr. Martin is a mechanic for Falmouth Lumber, where he has worked for over 30 years. He, too, has over 30 years in service to the company. In addition to being a call-man, he also served as a back-up mechanic for the department.

He said he would very rarely take off from work to respond to a call. He responded mainly during the night and weekends. He said it was tough responding to a call at 2 in the morning and then waking up for work the next day, but he enjoyed it regardless. He said he slept with a radio close by and trained himself to wake up for important calls. His wife could grow weary of the late night calls, he said.

He responded up to 25 times a month.

If they did not have a radio, call-firefighters would wear a beeper that the department would use to notify them of a call.  First call was for the department’s full-time firefighters, second-call was for the department officers, and the third call was for the call-men.

“It there was a hit, we did what we had to do,” Mr. Martin said. “We would respond to whatever the call was.” 

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