Jim Breur, Vergennes fire chief, dies of cancer

Jim Breur, who has served the City of Vergennes as member and eventually chief of the fire department, died this past Friday. He is shown here leading his department in the annual Vergennes Memorial Day Parade.
Photo by Mark Bouvier

VERGENNES — After 45 years with the City of Vergennes Fire Department, the past 14 as its chief, Jim Breur succumbed to a long battle with cancer on this past Friday. He died at his Addison home with his family at his side, according to a Saturday morning post on the Vergennes Fire Department website.

Breur joined the department in 1978, worked his way up the ranks, and was named chief in 2009. He succeeded Ralph Jackman, who was the longest-serving fire chief in the United States at the time of his death.

Chief Breur, who was named the Addison County Firefighters Association  (ACFA) chief of the year in 202, also served the county and the state as well as the city.

Breur served on the ACFA Advisory Board for 28 years and was the ACFA president in 2005 and 2006. He  was a member for many years of the Vermont State Firefighters Association executive board.

According to the department website, “The Chief dedicated his life to the department and to all communities we serve. Jim’s wisdom and dedication will live on in this department for many generations to come. He will be missed deeply, and we cannot thank his family, and most of all his loving wife Sandi, enough for sharing Jim with us.”

On Monday others chimed in on what Breur meant to them and the city department.

Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager pointed to the broad nature of Breur’s service.

“He’s done a lot not just for the city, but for the county,” Wager said. “It’s a big loss.”

And for many firefights, including Wager, it’s personal. He and Breur started their firefighting careers within a year of one another and worked their way up through the ranks of their departments at the same time — and also responded to many a call together over the years.

“We fought a lot of fires together,” Wager said. “I’m going to miss him.”

Wager also noted that Breur took over the department from two giants of firefighting, not only Ralph Jackman, but also Ray Davison, who was Jackman’s right-hand man and is credited with helping modernize firefighter training in Vermont.

Jim Breur’s shirt says it all: Loyal to duty. Fellow firefighter Mark Bouvier took this photo.

And, Wager said, the city department hasn’t missed a beat, with morale and numbers remaining strong and equipment up to date.

“He followed in the footsteps of Ralph Jackman and Ray Davison, both. He was a student of two masters, and he became a master, too,” Wager said. “He’s done a lot with the department and put them on a good trajectory. They’re still the City of Vergennes department, and a lot of it is his vision.”

Vergennes City Manager Ron Redmond said it didn’t take him long to become impressed with Breur.

“The chief was very deeply committed to the community and very deeply committed to the department,” Redmond said. “I’ve never worked with someone who cared as deeply as he did about the fire service.”

Redmond said, for example, Breur in recent years persuaded the city to hire an outside firm to perform annual health testing for city firefighters active in the field to ensure they could meet the demands of the job. In part, he said, Breur made that recommendation to show the department cared for volunteers’ well-being.

“He was concerned about how do we keep these younger firefighters who want to invest their lives in the fire service,” Redmond said.

One of those firefighters who has come up through the department’s ranks is First Deputy Chief Dave DiBiase. Redmond said DiBiase now becomes the interim chief until a formal process names a permanent chief.

Redmond said there are several things Breur has done to keep those ranks full.

“He was a very strong advocate for making sure the department had the resources it needed to function,” Redmond said. “We have a department that has such a strong ethic. Our department is large for the size of our city because there’s such a sense of camaraderie and community, and I think he really helped to advance that. People really loved him. They loved him because he came up through the ranks.”

DiBiase was one of those who rose the city department’s hierarchy after starting as a cadet in 2002, by the time Breur was the first deputy chief under Jackman.

“Our is ‘Loyal to Duty,’ and Jimmy showed and proved to every one of us what the definition of that meant,” DiBiase said. “He showed us how to be proud and prideful of what we did, and I think he learned that from Chief Ralph Jackman, and he instilled that in us for years to come. I think Jimmy was a steadfast leader. You couldn’t find anyone more stable and able to do anything that was asked of him.”

Vergennes Fire Chief Jim Breur, left, accepts the Addison County Firefighters Association’s Chief of the Year award in 2021.

DiBiase said Breur not only followed successfully in the footsteps of Jackman and Davison in keeping the department’s intangibles intact, but he also saw the ongoing revolution in firefighting technology and kept the city department in its vanguard.

“Jimmy always told us, ‘I see myself as a transitional chief. I served underneath Ralph and I want to instill those qualities on our members and where we came from, but I also want to move this department into the future,’” DiBiase recalled.

DiBiase also credited Breur for listening to the next generation of leaders in the department, and acting on their suggestions when they had merit.

“Jimmy was always open to listening to us (in the) younger generation, and respected us immensely and gave us the opportunity to grow in the department and grow the department,” he said.

For all the respect DiBiase has for Breur, he acknowledges friction between the two, but only early in their relationship. He said Breur “straightened me out.”

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye in the beginning of my career. And over time Jimmy became one of the most profound influences on my career as a firefighter and an officer that I have had the pleasure of knowing.”

How did things change over time?

“He was a great guy, and he was a straight shooter, man. He was always willing to work, and he was always willing to teach,” DiBiase said. “He told you how it was.”

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