Orwell’s Louis Hall reflects on decades serving on the fire department, rescue squad

ORWELL — Orwell native and dairy farmer Louis Hall can’t exactly recall how he ended up on the Orwell Volunteer Fire Department 48 years ago. 
“I really don’t remember how I got started,” said Hall, now 71. “I joined in ’67, and I don’t remember if somebody asked me. It wasn’t one of those things where I had a burning desire all my life. I just joined.”
But Hall, who stepped down as the fire department chief this past January after 37 years serving in that post, does recall moving up the ranks quickly.
By 1969, he was the fire department’s secretary, in 1971 and 1972 he served as its training officer, in 1972 he became a trustee, and in 1978 the department’s volunteer members elected him chief for the first of many times.
Hall, also one of the founders of the Orwell Rescue Squad, said once he became a member of the fire department he plunged right in.
“I guess I kind of jumped right into things, because I took, it’s the essentials course now, then it was a 45-hour course, I took three of those,” he said. “I took a lot of county and state courses. I have a pile of certificates. I was just into training.”
As Hall joined, the department was busy moving from a two-bay building in the village to its current home on Route 73 just east of the village. The department then owned two trucks, one 15 and one 19 years old.
Now, the department operates seven trucks out of a twice-expanded facility on a site it shares with the town’s highway department.
“Over time, look at our building, two expansions, new trucks, new rescue vehicles, new equipment,” Hall said, adding, “The town selectboard and the town voters have been very generous to us.”
Orwell Selectboard Chairman Roland “Ted” Simmons said the fire department has earned that generosity.
“The fire department needs something, they get it. The town doesn’t quibble too much,” Simmons said.
In part, that trust has been earned because Hall and other department leaders have planned well.
“There’s several been active, but Louis has been one of the guiding forces in the whole emergency services end of the town,” Simmons said.
Simmons was asked what Hall, who has also served as Orwell’s delinquent tax collector and town constable and runs his Hall and Breen Farm with two of his children, has meant to the town.
“It’s hard to know where to begin. I moved into the town 43 years ago, and he was active in the town then and has been ever since,” Simmons said, adding, “He’s kind of a laid-back guy. He doesn’t blow his own horn much, but he’s pretty steady, pretty well there when you need him.”
It was early in his fire department tenure, in 1973, when Hall joined about 10 other Orwell residents in founding the Orwell Rescue Squad.
Before then, funeral homes in Fair Haven or Brandon would pick up accident victims or folks who were desperately ill.
“Somebody would call one of the funeral homes,” Hall said. “They would come up with, I don’t remember which, either a hearse or an ambulance, depending on what was running I guess, and they would pick the person up, put them in the back, jump in the front, and get to the hospital as fast as they could.”
Things weren’t too formal at the start. The members trained, bought First Aid kits (Hall’s was an ammunition box he painted white, with a red cross on it), and opened up shop, using their own cars to respond.
“Basically we drew up some bylaws and said we were in business, I guess. Put some stickers on our phones,” Hall said.
The squad responded to between 12 and 16 calls per year for the first few years, a number that has grown to between 70 and 80 calls annually.
The squad eventually bought an AMC Pacer, and then a Dodge Ram Charger, and next a utility vehicle made for them that Hall said looked like a telephone truck. Now, Hall said, the squad responds in a used ambulance purchased from Middlebury Regional EMS, although if transport is needed they call the Middlebury agency.
Hall said the squad’s response has always been strong. Only once has the Orwell agency, which typically has eight or 10 members, several of them dairy farmers like Hall, had to ask neighboring Shoreham’s squad to handle a call.
“We pretty much just did it,” Hall said. “If the cows were milking you just went out, hit the machine and the units fell on the floor. You took care of it when you came back.”
Hall said he has never saved anybody’s life, although his wife Phyllis, a registered nurse, has done so.
“My wife was on years ago and she went to a choking call where she did save somebody,” he said. “We’ve had other calls where things would have gone worse if we weren’t there.”
This will be Hall’s last year on rescue. He has done 600 hours of fire training, and many more than that — he can’t pin down exactly how many — for the rescue squad, and it is time to let it go, he said.
“I am not going to re-certify this year for rescue. Everything is on computers. Everything is so much different than it used to be for training,” he said. “They’ve redone things over the years for training, but now it seems completely different.”
Simmons worked with Hall for nine years on the rescue squad and developed an appreciation for how Hall operated. Simmons said he’s sure those skills served Hall well in the fire department, too.
“He’s thoughtful about what he does,” Simmons said. “He’ll be standing back and trying to take the whole thing in and decide what’s best to move forward. And he’ll have the ambulance called for. And he’ll have someone lined up to direct traffic, depending on what the scene needs. He’s just so competent about what he’s been doing.”
For the most part, Hall said, the fire department always seemed to operate smoothly while he was in charge, although inevitably over almost 40 years some disagreements would crop up in a group that averaged 24 members.
“Everybody gets along with everybody else. Occasionally there is some problem, why didn’t you do that or whatever,” Hall said. “Hopefully, over time things smooth themselves out. Anybody in the department would do anything for anybody else in the department.”
Just as occasionally, not all would agree, at least right away, with some of Hall’s ideas about equipment needs. 
“With regards to equipment and so forth, I’ve been to a lot of the schools and trade shows, so I have an idea and bring it back, and some people will like it and some people won’t, and they’ll either buy it or won’t buy it,” Hall said. “And if they don’t, sometimes after three of four years they’ll decide that wasn’t such a bad idea and buy it.”
Overwhelmingly, Hall cites the teamwork and bond among the members of both the fire department and rescue squad as his fondest memories of serving.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie in both organizations, a lot of good people,” he said.
The percentage of successes in the field is just about as good, he said.
“We’ve had a lot of saves, a lot of saves. It’s unbelievable how many,” Hall said. “The last one was in January, just before I got done. It started as a chimney fire, and went through to the rafters of the house. I pulled in, and two other guys pulled in, and years ago we decided we’d all carry extinguishers. I said, ‘You guys got your extinguishers?’ And they did and I did, and they went right in the attic and hit it with the extinguishers. In another 10 minutes, that place would have been fully involved.”
A couple of homes over the years could not be saved. Once, Hall and the department’s assistant chief were on the way back from getting the department’s pumper truck serviced in Brandon when the tone went out for a fire in Whiting. They arrived almost immediately and were confident they could help.
“We knew it (the fire) was in the cellar. We put the deck gun down and put the whole load of water right in the cellar and didn’t put the fire out. It was an oil burner and an oil tank in there, and we just couldn’t do it,” Hall recalled. “It was one of those things. ‘Boy, we got this one.’ We were right there, we were in the truck, and we didn’t get it.”
Hall, who is proud that during his tenure no one on his crews suffered a serious injury, nor did any residents lose their lives to fire, will get more chances to save structures. He will remain a trustee and a responder for a couple more years
“I’m going to get a couple more ’til I get to 50, with any luck anyway,” Hall said.
He was recently happy to do something besides take his SUV to the scene and take charge.
“Since I got done, I actually got a chance to drive a truck,” Hall said. “I whipped in here, and there was a young fellow who was a truck driver, and he was taking the pumper. And I said let me take that, you take the tanker, because the tanker is a big heavy truck.”
Hall does figure that the new chief, Orwell road foreman Allan Alger, and the other officers might listen to him if he has some advice.
“I’ve still interjected an opinion,” he said.
But one of the two reasons he stepped down was to give Alger the chance to take over and other officers a chance to move up the ranks, with the other reason being recognizing that, “I’m getting too old to do it.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for two or three years. It was not tough. I’m not sure what you would call it. I figured it was the best thing to do, but I’m not sure I really wanted to,” Hall said. “It’s one of those things that needed to be done, but it was a little hard to make the decision. But I’m not regretting the decision. Like I said, the young guys are good. We’ve got some great talent.”
Simmons said there is a reason Orwell chose Hall as the grand marshal of its Memorial Day parade and honored him afterward, and Rep. Allison Eastman, I-Orwell, had a resolution passed in Hall’s honor by the Vermont Legislature.
“Louis has been a good public servant for the town,” Simmons said. “We need more people like that, actually.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
LOUIS HALL STANDS on the running board of the Orwell Rescue Squad’s First Response vehicle, which was purchased used from Middlebury Regional EMS. The dozen members of Orwell’s squad respond to between 70 and 80 calls a year, said Hall, who was among a dozen squad founders back in 1973.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

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