DEVENS — When Thomas Edward Garrity was little, his grandfather, the late Hudson Fire Chief M. James Coleman, would bounce him on his knee inside the fire station.
Chief from 1938 to 1951, Coleman died in the line of duty after suffering a heart attack while fighting a 13 day-long dump fire.
“He always carried a piece of wood behind his ear. I have . . .” Garrity said, winking and reaching behind his ear, “a wooden toothpick,” which he plopped into his mouth.
Garrity’s grandmother gave him Coleman’s badge, a keepsake he’s had in his desk drawer for 29 years as a Hudson firefighter, then lieutenant.
“When I made chief (1986 to 1999) that’s the badge I wore,” Garrity said.
Garrity’s grandfather was his inspiration to join the fire service at age 16.
A passionate man with deep convictions, his traits as applied to work prompted MassDevelopment senior officials to nominate Devens Fire Chief Thomas E. Garrity for the 2008 Extraordinary Service Award.
“Aw, can’t you get someone else? Come on,” Garrity said when approached for an interview. “I’ll talk to you as a friend, but that other stuff ”
Garrity’s role is more than a fire chief. He is also Devens’ director of public safety. As such, he deals with multiple state and federal agencies due to the uniqueness of Devens. State police, the local police force, report to him. He’s been on the job 10 years.
“Chief Garrity is known as one of the best chiefs in the state,” said DEC Director Peter Lowitt. “Part of the reason he was selected is that Hudson has considerable industrial infrastructure.”
The selection wasn’t easy from Garrity’s viewpoint.
“I was never interviewed so much in my life. There were 100 people in the room for my first one. Then came Jim Cain, Bill Burke, the state police and outside fire departments,” he said.
“My third interview was with (former MassDevelopment CEO) Mike Hogan. I guess he thought I was good enough.”
Garrity and Maureen, his wife of 35 years, have three children, Denise, Erin and Thomas Jr. A graduate of Hudson Catholic in 1965, he served four years in the Coast Guard before completing college at Quinsigamond College (studying bio-science) and Anna Maria College.
“I’m a four-point sailor (having crossed the international date line, equator, and sailed to both poles),” he said.
Garrity was on an ice breaker at the South Pole, a buoy tender and at a light boat station during his active-duty time. He became a full-time Hudson firefighter in 1970, chief in 1986 and Devens fire chief in 1999.
He was one of those who fought the infamous Worcester warehouse fire.
A memorial to fallen firefighters was erected at the Devens station two years ago, seemingly at his direction but actually, he said, by the Devens firefighter’s union, on their own with their own money, following a fatal fire in Lancaster.
Garrity also deals with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, National Guard, U.S. Army, Shriver Job Corps and all the industries on Devens, plus a small residential populace.
Part of his focus is to develop — and share with area departments — specialized training particular to an industrial area that includes HAZMAT, confined space and trench rescue. All of his men are trained to a technical or operational level.
Last year he acquired federal grant money to design and conduct a full-scale multi-agency disaster drill involving the military, state police, prison, the fire departments of Ayer, Groton, Harvard, Littleton, Lunenburg and Shirley, and the regional hazardous materials team.
Garrity has been president of the Fire Chief’s Association of Massachusetts, chairman of the Massachusetts Hazardous Material Police Board (appointed by governor William Weld), Fire Service Commissioner (appointed by governor Paul Cellucci), director of the Fire Academy, and the Bomb Squad.
He serves as the chief’s representative to the Massachusetts Fallen Firefighters Committee and served as the chief’s representative to the state Emergency Response Committee, among other posts.
Garrity believes in team building and “fairness, but you’re only as good as those who work for you. I want to be there for my people and they for me.
“I also don’t take any (guff),” he said, a statement to which Devens firefighters would agree.
“I had wanted to be a firefighter for a long time. It absolutely started with my grandfather.
“This job is about who you know to call to solve a problem. We all have the same issues, just different names and faces. Your brother chiefs will share information,” he said.
“Today’s firefighter is highly intelligent, multi-talented, most are certified EMTs. A lot are I’s (intermediates) and P’s (paramedics). A lot have degrees,” Garrity said. “Today’s firefighter has a lot to consider. The equipment is better than when I first came in but it takes more to operate it, which means training,” he said.
“Any job that’s nights and weekends, working more weekends than off, puts stress on family life. We don’t make a lot of money and, nationwide, we take exceptionally high risks,” he said.
“Firefighting? No. Probably working in public safety,” Garrity said.
When does he plan to retire?
Lowering his head to deliver his trademark stare, he said, “I have no idea, maybe this afternoon if they (bleep) me off. Now I mean it, get someone else.”