Michael F. Small, the chief of the Falmouth Fire Department, went to his first fire at the age of 5. His father was the deputy fire chief in Bourne and would wake him up when the scanner squawked, knowing how much his son enjoyed accompanying his dad.
“I loved every minute of it. My father was my role model, my mentor. From that age I knew it was what I wanted to do,” the chief said this week as he was packing up his office, readying to leave the Falmouth Fire Department.
Chief Small succeeded former chief Mark Sullivan after he retired in 2016. Deputy Fire Chief Timothy R. Smith will take over as chief as the town follows the civil service protocol in hiring the permanent successor. That will most likely take four or five months, Chief Small said.
“It has been a great ride, the best job in the world, but it’s time to reconnect with my family and be a better husband, father, son,” he said.
While he has no regrets and knew the job would be “24-7, 365 days a year,” he is looking forward to connecting with his loved ones, and his Harley-Davidson, he said.
Now 55, Mr. Small is retiring today after three decades in Falmouth. He led the department through union negotiations that did away with a one-man fire call, the onslaught of opiate overdoses and increased naloxone use, active shooter training and, lastly, putting into practice the new staffing system during a worldwide pandemic.
He saw a few “firsts” while on the job, including training with police on mass shooting scenes and arriving to calls with N95 masks, gloves and shields during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Never did I think I would have a bulletproof vest or a pandemic isolation suit,” he said.
Chief Small and his staff of 64 firefighters trained last year to don the Kevlar suits and move in closer than before to active shooter or mass violence scenes and start administering medical treatment sooner than they did under traditional protocols.
“Rather than wait for police to bring victims to us, we are now trained to enter with police an area that is secured but not cleared and start delivering first aid right away. It’s a necessary change with the uptick of mass shootings,” he said.
Although naloxone has been in use since 1971 as a reversal to an opiate overdose, the uptick in overdoses nationally and in Falmouth has made naloxone use by firefighters a daily occurrence. Chief Small appears to be at the right place at the right time.
“The funny thing is, I have used it more often as a deputy chief and chief than I did in the 20-plus years I spent on the front line,” he said, recalling several times in the past few years he was driving and happened upon a scene of an overdose and administered the rescue drug.
But what may be the hallmark of his career as chief is the new staffing model that took effect July 1, as a result of Falmouth firefighters’ union contract negotiations that stipulate no fire equipment will be sent on a call with fewer than two firefighters/EMTs/paramedics onboard.
Chief Small emphasized that the new practice greatly enhances safety.
Critics complain it leaves the West Falmouth station unmanned unless firefighters volunteer to work overtime. The chief said permanently staffing the station will occur sometime between January and March 2021, when more manpower is in place. The department is hiring 10 additional firefighters largely as part of a $971,507 Town Meeting override that passed in May and was approved at Town Meeting in June.
“Getting rid of the one-man fire trucks should have been done 35 years ago and makes it safer for the firefighters and for the town. We used to start with 10 firefighters per shift; now we start with 14, which is an accomplishment…not my accomplishment because a lot of people worked on this…but I am glad it came to a head when I was chief and I got to be a part of making it happen and stop kicking the can down the road.”
While the town has made great strides with adequately staffing the department, he said there is more work to be done for “optimal staffing all across town.”
He began in Bourne as a call firefighter when he was 16 years old in 1981. A few years later, he joined the Falmouth Police Department as a summer foot patrol officer and then worked midnight shifts on patrol. He worked one year at the Bourne Fire Department and in 1988 joined Falmouth’s department, where he worked his way up through the ranks. He is a trained paramedic and is a certified fire investigator.
On his second-to-last day at work, he emphasized his institutional knowledge gleaned only through experience and the importance of passing it along to younger or less-experienced crew.
“There are things you learn on the job—reading smoke, assessing risk and benefits before entering a building. And the best thing an old fireman can do is teach a new fireman how to be an old fireman,” he said.