2016-08-25 / Front Page

In the family

Father and son fire chiefs reflect on service
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer


Fire Chief Scott Gagne, the city’s 39th fifire chief, checks out Engine 1, a 1924 Ahrens Fox ladder truck with his father, Raymond Gagne, the city’s 35th fifire chief. The truck was in service until 1991, although it was only used as a parade vehicle in its later years. Raymond Gagne, who worked at the fifire department from 1964 to 2003, said he drove Engine 1 while it was in service. Scott Gagne used to ride along with his father to service calls when he was a teenager. (Ben Meiklejohn photos) Fire Chief Scott Gagne, the city’s 39th fifire chief, checks out Engine 1, a 1924 Ahrens Fox ladder truck with his father, Raymond Gagne, the city’s 35th fifire chief. The truck was in service until 1991, although it was only used as a parade vehicle in its later years. Raymond Gagne, who worked at the fifire department from 1964 to 2003, said he drove Engine 1 while it was in service. Scott Gagne used to ride along with his father to service calls when he was a teenager. (Ben Meiklejohn photos) BIDDEFORD – The city’s newest fire chief has a rare source of counsel and inspiration to draw from, the man who was chief four chiefs before him – his father. Fire Chief Scott Gagne, who was appointed in June but was acting chief for 14 months before that, said his father, Raymond Gagne, inspired him to become involved in the fire safety and prevention field. Scott Gagne is the city’s 39th fire chief, Raymond Gagne, the 35th.


Father and son fire chiefs Scott and Raymond Gagne pose in front of their official portraits that hang at the fire department. The lower portrait is of Fire Chief Scott Gagne, and the upper right portrait is of his father, Raymond Gagne. Father and son fire chiefs Scott and Raymond Gagne pose in front of their official portraits that hang at the fire department. The lower portrait is of Fire Chief Scott Gagne, and the upper right portrait is of his father, Raymond Gagne. Raymond Gagne started working for the fire department in 1964, became deputy chief in 1980, chief in 1994 and then retired in 2003. The former chief said his father moved to Biddeford from Canada and owned a gas station in the city, but friends encouraged him to join the fire department.

“I was a milkman for a while, but I had friends in fire service and in those days, they were crying for firemen. They couldn’t get nobody. The pay was $62 a week,” said Raymond . “My wife was in support because as a milkman, it was commission. I took a cut in pay but it didn’t take long to make it right back up.”

Like his father before him, Chief Scott Gagne also rose through the ranks to deputy chief before becoming chief. Scott Gagne said he we was first hired as a call fighter in 1991, a full time fighter in 1995, was promoted to lieutenant in 2005 and deputy chief in 2008 before being made acting chief in March of last year and officially promoted to chief this summer.

Raymond Gagne said there are many differences between now and when he first became a firefighter.

“When I came in, it was still operating like it was in the 1940s and ’50s,” he said. “SCBA’s (self-contained breathing apparatuses), they didn’t have, now it’s mandatory. I used to be the one holding on to the back of the truck for dear life. Today you do that, you go to jail.”

Raymond Gagne said when he was deputy chief and his son was only 13 years old, he told him, “When I get a call, if you’re in the car when I leave, you can come with me.”

“He came with me all the time,” he added.

Scott Gagne said there was no Junior Firefighters program when he was a teenager. The program was eventually started by his father, then chief, in 1996.

“We have guys still here today that came out of that program,” Raymond Gagne said.

Scott Gagne said working for his father while he was chief helped prepare him for the administrative aspects of the department.

“It helped me to prepare quicker. I saw both sides,” Scott Gagne said. “Some people don’t see the management side. It helped me to advance my career more because I gained a very well-rounded scope … It’s a very challenging position to be in. You see the city side of things and the municipal impact it has, but you also see the operational side and you know what the men and women need to do the job well.”

Raymond Gagne said long before he became chief, he was the second president of the firefighters’ union after they unionized in the early 1980s. Scott Gagne said chief is a unique position to be in while current negotiations between the city and firefighters’ union are ongoing because he has to see things from both perspectives.

Scott Gagne said he has a goal to increase staff to be able to run a second ambulance that doesn’t have to be staffed by the same people who staff the aerial fire truck.

“Last time we had staffing increases was in 2005, when we added one person per shift,” he said. “That year, we did 2,078 calls for service. In 2015, we did 5,400 runs with the same staffing. We’re to a critical point now where we need to look at what are our future goals. If we continue to get increasing calls, we need to shift and do something because we’re at capacity now … That’s a lot of numbers for one house.”

Scott Gagne said the city averages nearly 400 calls per year at University of New England and the response time there is 11 minutes, which he would like to see decrease. Even though Biddeford only has a population of 22,000 people, Scott Gagne said, “We’re doing calls based on a 40,000 population, based on daytime flux.”

Another issue the department will have to deal with is recruitment of new firefighters, Scott Gagne added, because 60 percent of current officers are at retirement age.

Raymond Gagne said the department, which started in 1855, has only ever had four firefighters die while responding to an emergency. Unfortunately, Raymond Gagne witnessed one of them.

“One of the worst fires is when one of your own gets smoke inhalation and drops dead in front of you,” he said. “We call that a black day.”

Raymond Gagne said one of the worst fires he ever fought was Central Hotel, located where the parking lot for Grady’s Radio and Satellite TV is now. Five residents died in that fire. Another “spectacular” fire was when the Old Orchard Beach Pier and amusement park went up in flames, burning down a quarter of the pier.

“The biggest reward is when you do save a life,” Raymond Gagne said. “One time there was a room fire where one didn’t make it but one did make it. There’s something in the back of your mind that stays with you for life. I think that’s what makes you motivate when you go to these fires.”

Scott Gagne said his father inspired him to become a firefighter so much, that after he attended college for a business degree, he returned to Biddeford to work as a firefighter and knew that was what he wanted to do. The father and son have some things in common in their tenures of chief – both worked their entire fire safety careers with Biddeford Fire Department and both had a deputy chief position eliminated by the city when they became chief.

But the two share more than that – Scott Gagne wears his father’s badge, with his own appointment to the position engraved on the back in addition to his father’s tenure. Scott Gagne also brought into his office a wooden chair that used to be in his father’s fire station bedroom.

“I never thought I would be here and I looked up to my father,” Scott Gagne said. “I’m very fortunate to have been given the opportunity. Biddeford has always been a leader in fire safety.”

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