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Bristol fire chief Brett LaRose emphasizes teamwork

BRETT LAROSE, WHO has been chief of the Bristol Fire Department for seven years, is the force pushing for continuous education, training and testing that ensures the fire company is prepared for all emergencies.

Firefighters are trying to balance their lives. They have full-time jobs … You don’t want to push (firefighters) so hard they end up walking away.
— Chief Brett LaRose

BRISTOL — The Bristol Fire Department that Brett LaRose leads today is quite a bit different from the one he joined 25 years ago.
“Back then it was a unique culture here, more of a club mentality,” LaRose told the Independent during a recent Zoom interview. “There was a waiting list to get in, and members did the voting on who could and could not become a member. If you weren’t well-liked by someone you weren’t going to get into the organization. It was a popularity vote.”
Fire departments used to perform hazing activities, he said.
“I’m not saying it happened regularly but those processes which were once acceptable are no longer acceptable.”
And there was no cadet program — department bylaws set the minimum age at 21.
Today, prospective firefighters must go through the same hiring process as any other town employee. Once hired, they’re considered paid on-call firefighters and they receive minimum wage for each call for service they respond to. And while many of the BFD’s officers are still elected within the department, the chief and deputy chief are appointed by the selectboard.
In his seventh year as Bristol fire chief, LaRose says his philosophy is all about transparency and the team mentality.
“I emphasize this to my officers all the time,” he said. “Yes, I have to make decisions, and sometimes I have to make them alone, but most every decision I make … it’s done by discussion. I’m truly interested in everyone’s opinion. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know how to do everything, but at the end of the day I want to make this decision collectively so we can move forward as a group. I believe in getting buy-in.”
People skills are a must for the modern fire chief, he said.
“I have the largest department in the town of Bristol — 33, including the officers — that I’m responsible for. And change can be hard, especially for those who had tenure. I always say that change is inevitable, but you have to sell change.”
It’s a balancing act, he said.
“Firefighters are trying to balance their lives. They have full-time jobs. And you know, we have something we didn’t used to have — single parents — so they’re managing their kids half-time. You don’t want to push (firefighters) so hard they end up walking away.”
LaRose credits his people and management skills to his professional life. He’s worked in state government for 15 years and is currently the Mission & Resource Section Chief for the State Emergency Operations Center.
But he also feels like he understands people.
“I’m able to put my arm around anybody, whether it’s my firefighter or somebody who’s having the worst day of their life and say, We’re going to get through this, we’re going to be all right.”
He’s been face to face with a lot of crying firefighters over the years, he said. And he can relate.
“Not a lot of people know this about me, but in October 2006 I resigned from the fire department,” LaRose said.
He had worked his way up to captain, but he was working through some personal challenges and didn’t know what he wanted or where he wanted to be, he explained.
“I remember the morning I (resigned),” he said. “I drove around for hours, knowing what I was going to do. Finally I got the courage up to stop at Chief (Mark) Bouvier’s house — at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning when he and his wife were getting ready for church — and I walked through that door and I lost it.”
Walking away was the hardest decision he’d ever made, he said.
After “floating” for the next eight or nine months, LaRose was coaxed into returning to the BFD.
“And I felt like a kid again,” he recalled. “It was so rejuvenating. Looking back now, I know it was exactly what I needed to do. Now I know why I’m here.”
In January 2008, LaRose became what is now known as deputy fire chief. Six years later he was elected chief.
LaRose also credits his wife, Erin, and daughter, Ella, for his success.
“My wife is a rock,” he said. “She is an amazing woman. If I can’t come home to a house where there’s love and support, I can’t do this job effectively. I wouldn’t have lasted this long — no way.”
Among the accomplishments he’s most proud of, Chief LaRose counts the department’s successful transition from the 130-year-old firehouse off North Street to the new building on West Street a few years ago.
LaRose has also had great success in winning grants for his department. Just this month, in fact, the BFD was awarded a $126,395 Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which will be used to replace the department’s self-contained breathing apparatuses.
Last year the department answered 150 calls for service, totaling 2,322 hours worked. Behind the scenes, it takes an immense amount of work and management to maintain operational readiness for those calls — training and continuing education, equipment testing and inspection.
Whenever the next call comes, the BFD will be ready, LaRose said.
“I feel very confident every time that pager goes off and we go out the door that we are going to provide exceptional service to the public and we’re going to be able to mitigate pretty much anything we’re faced with.”

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