January 28, 2008
By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL — After nearly two decades leading the Bristol Fire Department, Mark Bouvier has passed the mantle of authority to a younger generation. Second Assistant Chief John “Peeker” Heffernan took over as chief earlier this month from Bouvier.
“It was a combination of feeling that I’ve done what I set out to do, and sometimes there’s the loss of the, if you’ll pardon the pun, the fire in the belly,” said Bouvier, 59. “It was a good time, I felt, to hand over the reins.”
Two other senior officers — Fire Truck Captain Peter Bouvier (Mark’s brother), and First Assistant Chief Peter Coffey — also stepped away from those posts on Jan. 5 because of other demands on their time.
Mark Bouvier has spent a total of 34 years in the fire department, with the last 18 years as chief and seven years before that as an assistant chief. Peter Bouvier was assistant fire truck captain for the past 19 years, and was assistant truck captain for one year before that. Coffey was first assistant chief for 19 years, and was the second assistant chief for one year before that.
All told, Peter and Mark Bouvier and Peter Coffey have spent 65 years as officers of the Bristol Fire Department.
Peter Bouvier and Coffey could not be reached for comment, but Heffernan said that they also were stepping aside partly due to other demands on their time.
Mark Bouvier stressed that he, along with the others, will still be around as members of the department, just not in leadership positions.
“I’m just stepping aside, not out,” he said.
Heffernan said he was glad to know that the former officers will still be around to offer guidance here and there. “They said they were willing to help, and that’s why I agreed to take the spot,” Heffernan said.
The three made a good team. Mark Bouvier said working with Peter made his job as chief easier. “He certainly was somebody I could rely on,” Mark said.
He also credited Coffey with being a great help to him and the department.
“All those little nuances that life threw up, (they) dealt with for us,” Bouvier said.
Heffernan is also chairman of the selectboard, but his term as chairman will end in March, so it will be a little less of a demand on his time, he said. He said he would recuse himself from any selectboard vote regarding the fire department.
Heffernan said that one remarkable thing about working with Coffey and the Bouviers has been their quick thinking in the face of emergencies.
“They’re very knowledgeable. They’re able to make decisions on the fly and stick to them,” Heffernan said.
Mark Bouvier agreed that the ability to think under pressure was very important to the job.
“When you lose that sense of calm, you’re bound to make mistakes,” he said. However, if Bouvier makes staying calm look easy to the other officers and members of the department, that doesn’t mean it actually is.
“It’s only on the outside,” he said.
That ability has earned Bouvier the respect of the firefighters in the department, Heffernan said. “I don’t know that an order has ever been questioned.”
Bouvier said he has accomplished a lot in his years on the fire department and now wants more time with his family.
When he started as fire chief, Bouvier had a number of goals, including finding a new home for the fire department. The department is still in the aging building where it has been since before he joined, but there is now an architect working on plans for a new building, so that priority is well on the way to being achieved, even if it’s not completed yet.
“It’s starting down that path,” Bouvier said.
Bouvier has had to make a number of changes over the years. Requirements for training for firemen have increased greatly since he joined the force himself. In 1974, firefighters needed 45 hours of training for certification, he said, as well as a few hours of training a year to maintain it. Now, certification takes 150 hours, and Heffernan said that at least 35 hours per year are required of annual retraining.
“The skill level, when they complete that process, is far in advance of what we had,” Bouvier said. And the requirements make it harder to recruit and keep talented firefighters. “Certainly our firefighters are coming out better trained, but the challenge is the time,” Bouvier said.
Now that he has more free time, Bouvier isn’t sure what he’ll do with it. He said that he might collect the stories of other volunteer firefighters and write a book about the job in the coming years, or make a compilation of his photographs of the Bristol Fire Department at work, and he still works as a business manager at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury.
One of Bouvier’s plans for the future is more certain than others, though: he wants to “enjoy more time with my grandson,” he said. His grandson, Connor Estey, lives in Stoughton, Mass., with his parents, and Bouvier thought it was especially appropriate that he was born on Oct. 4 — 10-4, a term firefighters over the radio to indicate agreement when responding to an emergency forces them to be brief.
Bouvier said he and his wife, Debbie, had been thinking about his future as chief for the last couple years. His time as chief has also meant a lot less free time to spend with his family, but he said she has put up with it well over the years.
“Anybody in that position, no matter the department, wouldn’t make it without the support of their significant other,” Bouvier said.