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Correspondent

SHIRLEY — “These are three guys I depend on immensely,” said fire Chief Dennis Levesque. “You can’t replace time and experience.”

The four firefighters who gathered at the fire station for an interview — Capt. Joseph Hawthorne, Deputy Chief William Callahan, firefighter William Poitras and Levesque — represent a combined total of a more than a century on the job.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard it was,” to get them here, Levesque said of the interview.

It wasn’t easy to get them talking, either.

Some firefighters are natural storytellers. Others, like these men, are more circumspect. But they’ve seen their share of the best and the worst.

A couple of months ago, a woman came to the fire station seeking help for an unconscious passenger in her car. “She wasn’t breathing,” Levesque said. The chief performed CPR. Recently, she stopped by to say thanks, he said. “She’s fine now.”

Those are the stories he likes to share. But there are tragedies, too.

The pilot who died when his ultra-lite aircraft crashed at the former Shirley airport a number of years ago.

The fatal fire at a home on Harvard Road on Dec. 26, 1980 that took the lives of five family members — three children and their parents. The house was fully engulfed when fire trucks arrived. The cause was faulty wiring, sparking a fire that spread to the Christmas tree.

That was a bad year, Hawthorne said, citing a fatal blaze just nine days before, when another man died in a fire in town.

The whole department was hit hard by the loss of one of it’s own in 1994, when firefighter Keith Kidder was killed by a train. He had joined the department in 1980, shortly after Joe Hawthorne, Levesque said.

They are all fathers, and the deaths of children hit especially hard, Levesque said, recalling a young boy who drowned in Shirley about 10 years ago.

In any emergency, response time is critical, he stressed.

These four firefighters and others on the department today were on hand for one of the town’s biggest fires, Levesque said. It also turned out to be one of the community’s proudest success stories.

When St. Anthony’s Catholic Church burned several years ago, departments from surrounding towns helped battle the blaze.

The fire completely destroyed the church and parish hall. It was attributed to arson.

Nobody was hurt. Thanks to fund-raising efforts, donations and countless volunteer hours, the church was rebuilt, and then some.

Since the fatal fires in 1980, the fire department has gone full-time, with around the clock coverage and two firefighters on every shift. But the set-up Levesque pushed hard for is tenuous. When the town budget gets tight, numbers could be cut. With only one firefighter on duty, the truck has to wait to go out until a volunteer arrives, he said. And that’s risky.

It might be argued that 24-hour coverage is overkill in a town of 6,000 people, even with a sprawling geographic footprint and a railroad line that splits it in half.

But Levesque and his key people know better. Businesses these days may store toxic chemicals and the department must be prepared, they said. And as the population grows, the pool of volunteers working in town and available for daytime call-outs is getting smaller.

Part-time or full-time, snapshot resumes can’t do justice to a firefighter’s job. Even the duties these men consider ordinary are extraordinary, viewed from another slant.

Few who have never had a fire in their home or a family member who suddenly needed medical help, can grasp how critical emergency services are, they all agreed.

Firefighters are valuable assets whose worth grows with the years.

Continually updated firefighting and emergency response techniques, combined with high-tech equipment, are the machinery departments are made of; and the skills-set a veteran firefighter totes like an invisible backpack is muscle-learned.

Chief Levesque, a Shirley native with deep town roots, has been with the department for 31 years, 10 as chief, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His daughter, Kristy Levesque, is a Shirley firefighter now.

Alphe Levesque, Dennis’s father, was fire chief when the town built a new fire station, but his son is the first to preside over a full-time department.

Captain Joseph Hawthorne, a full-timer whose family’s firefighting history dates back generations, has been with the department for 28 years.

Deputy Chief William Callahan, a mechanic at the Citgo station he once owned on Main Street, and firefighter William Poitras, who works full-time at MCI Shirley, are part-time firefighters. They have both been with the department for 22 years.

This year, Nashoba Publishing’s Extraordinary Service Award for Shirley recognizes the value of longevity, citing firefighters with service of 20 years or more.

The job isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea,” Levesque said, noting that some have come with the best intentions but left after a day in training.

Poitras, an EMT as well as an on-call firefighter, said he worked for himself when he joined the department in 1985. Originally from Harvard where his uncle was a deputy fire chief, his wife is from Shirley, he said. They married in 1984 and he joined the department the next summer.

“One thing I’ve learned is not to let it hamper my family life,” he said.

Unlike Hawthorne and Levesque, Poitras can’t say firefighting is “in my blood,” he said, but a tradition is building. His son Michael, 19, has joined the department, and his oldest daughter, Jennifer, a recent college graduate, just became its newest EMT.

“We live next door,” he said, by way of another explanation.

As for his motivation, it may have hinged on a desire to “make a difference,” he said. By serving the community, he helps ensure the service will be there for his own family if they ever need it.

If he were making a career choice today, he might become a full-time firefighter, Poitras said.

Callahan grew up in Ayer and bought Bill’s Citgo in Shirley. Reflecting on “22 wonderful years” as a firefighter, he said his introduction to the department came by invitation. He and Poitras were childhood friends.

Levesque called his steadfast second-in-command virtually indispensable. “I’d never be able to leave town … without him,” he said.

Hawthorne, a full-time firefighter who’s been with the department for the better part of three decades, is its official inspector for smoke detectors and compliance, Levesque said. He comes from a “big firefighting family,” in Fitchburg and Leominster, including his father, uncle and cousins. His own first experience was on the flight deck of the Navy ship Forrestall, he said.

Like Poitras, Hawthorne moved to Shirley after marrying a native, he said. Now, his children work in emergency services, too. His daughter, Katie, and son, Jonathan, are dispatchers.

Asked to compare today’s department with the “old days,” he said firefighters got a “coat and helmet” and learned on the job. “There’s more training now,” he said. In addition, today’s firefighters are more versed in “the medical side” of the job, he said.

Levesque agreed that training and education are major differences. “Things were simpler then,” he said. Now, everyone starts off with “Firefighting One” at the academy. And it doesn’t cost the town anything. He and Hawthorne said equipment is better, too, including air packs and protective gear.

Whatever inspired them, they’re in for the long haul and hooked on the job, from middle of the night calls and outings disrupted, to gritty essentials such as equipment maintenance and keeping the fire station shipshape, to the big moment that’s always expected and always a surprise.

Alarms sound. The system moves like clockwork: Donning hefty gear, jumping aboard trucks, heading out to face risks they don’t dwell on.

“There’s no rhyme or rhythm to it, no way to predict what a call will turn out to be,” Poitras said.

But whatever and whenever that call is, these men stand ready to answer, no matter what.

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