Rick Cole to step down as Middlebury fire chief

MIDDLEBURY — Rick Cole had always planned on retiring as Middlebury fire chief at age 65. But that landmark birthday happened to coincide with one of the most important periods in the fire department’s history — its pitch for major construction makeovers of its Seymour Street and East Middlebury stations.
“I got the conversation restarted and thought, I can’t walk away from this now,” Cole said on Monday of the fire station projects, a community conversation that ended happily with voter approval of a $4.625 million construction bond in March of 2012. That support allowed the department to replace its East Middlebury station with a smaller, more energy-efficient structure in late 2012 and renovate and expand its Seymour Street headquarters in early 2013.
“Once this got built, I said I’ve got to spend a year in it,” Cole said with a smile while seated in the command room of the beautifully transformed Seymour Street station.
Now 69, Cole said there’s no more reason to delay passing the baton to the next chief, a position he’d like to go to Assistant Chief David Shaw. Cole vowed to remain with the force as a regular firefighter, performing tasks as needed. But he’s on track to get done as chief by Jan. 1, a transition that will free him up to spend some long overdue time with his wife, Judy, whom he has had to leave at a moment’s notice to respond to the thousands of calls for service of which he has been a part for the past 39 years as a Middlebury firefighter.
“It has been a very rewarding experience and I feel we have accomplished many things,” Cole said in his recent resignation letter to the Middlebury selectboard.
“This was a position that I never dreamed of holding until I was asked,” he added. “Thank you everyone for the support and the assistance.”
Cole, a lifelong Middlebury resident, got interested in firefighting as a member of an Explorer Scouts program through which youths were able to learn about the job by helping firefighters maintain their equipment and by proving ancillary services — such as crowd and traffic control — at fires and traffic accidents.
He eventually joined the department in 1975, and loved it. One of his tasks was steering the rear portion of the department’s old “tiller” ladder truck
“That was fun,” he recalled.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Cole had thoughts of rising through the ranks to captain, but never aspired to becoming chief. But that changed in 1996, following the tenure of the late Chief Richard Hayes. The Middlebury selectboard appoints the department’s chief and assistant chiefs. Cole had questions about the leadership transition and recalled an animated conversation at the time with then-Selectman Kevin Parizo.
“He said, ‘If you don’t like what you’re looking at, run for chief,’” Cole said.
The more he thought about it, the more he became intrigued by the idea. He asked for advice from other members of the firefighting community and threw his name into the hat. Much to his surprise and pleasure, he was selected.
But town officials told Cole that he would serve as chief for a one-year trial period, and his future in the position would depend largely on his handling of a major task: The merger of the Middlebury and East Middlebury fire departments. Those departments had functioned for years as two separate entities.
“(The merger) went very smoothly,” Cole said.
This led to Cole’s reappointment as chief for a series of three-year stints, during which a lot of other work got done. He said he is most proud of the department’s ongoing upgrade of its equipment to make sure it is delivering top service to residents, the establishment of a local technical rescue group to handle rescues on the water and in tight or tricky spots on land, the department’s response to the train derailment in downtown Middlebury in 2007, and of course the recent building project.
“There has been a huge change in technology,” Cole said, referring to apparatus and equipment upgrades since he joined the department in the mid-1970s.
And the responsibilities of chief have also grown and changed through the years, according to Cole. There’s a lot more paperwork that requires Cole to be in the office at least 10 hours per week. This work is, of course, in addition to the command responsibilities the chief has at accident sites. The town pays the chief a stipend for these responsibilities, but it really doesn’t cover the amount of time the job requires, according to Cole, who suggests the town is edging closer to needing some full-time, paid staff. The department currently has eight firetrucks and around 40 volunteer members, including some Middlebury College students.
“The hardest thing is when you have people who expect to see you during the day,” Cole said. “How do you fit that in when you have another job?”
Cole has been able to devote a lot of time to the department due to some workday flexibility. He was longtime owner-operator of Cole’s Flowers when it was located on South Pleasant Street. His grandfather launched the shop in 1937. Rick Cole took it over in 1986 and ran it until 2005, when he accepted a job at the Marble Works Pharmacy. The shop has since moved to MacIntyre Lane and is run by one of his daughters.
It was around five years ago that Cole retired from the pharmacy. As a retiree, he has been more available to perform fire department-related work, but he’d like some more time to himself.
Shaw, a stalwart member of the department since 1980, is open to following in Cole’s footsteps. But he wants to speak first with town officials about the possibility of municipal staff absorbing some of the clerical duties of the department. Shaw currently works a 45-hour-per-week job. He considers himself fortunate his employer allows him to respond to fire department matters when duty calls, but said the chief’s duties as they currently stand could become difficult to balance with full-time employment.
“This is still a volunteer organization,” Shaw said, noting the department is on pace to respond to 220 calls for service this year. And that doesn’t include firefighter training, meetings and inspection services. Most members of the Middlebury Fire Department log around 75 hours of training each year, according to Shaw, 52.
Shaw and Cole were scheduled this week to chat with Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay about the future of the chief’s position.
Asked what he would miss most, Cole said “Coordinating a fire scene.” He added he’s pleased that there have been no fatal fires in Middlebury during his time as chief, though the department did coordinate response to a fatal house fire in Ripton several years ago.
He called the 2003 death of firefighter Bruce Young, who died while responding to a call, as one of the most tragic and emotionally draining episodes he can remember as chief.
“I don’t care to ever go through something like that again,” he said of an in-the-line-of-duty death of a fellow firefighter.
Cole stressed he will continue on as a firefighter, performing whatever tasks are assigned to him.
“After 40 years, I can’t leave it,” Cole said. “It’s family.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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