After 20 Years, Tunbridge Fire Chief Steps Down
Twenty years ago, Tunbridge native John Durkee was elected Tunbridge Volunteer Fire Department Chief, a position he accepted and has held ever since.
Durkee and the department have accomplished a lot over the last two decades, and the chief now feels it is the right time for him to step down. A new chief will be elected at the department’s annual meeting, on March 14 at the Tunbridge Town Hall. The meeting is open to the public, and a potluck begins at 6 p.m.
Durkee’s father, Bob, was one of the founders of the department in March of 1967, making this their 50- year anniversary—another reason to attend this year’s annual meeting. Bob remained closely involved with the department his entire life, including being the Deputy Chief for 11 years.
John’s mother was always involved with the department and made the barbecue sauce for the annual Memorial Day chicken dinner and sale for many years.
Growing up around the TVFD, becoming a firefighter was in John’s blood. As soon as he was able, Durkee joined the department in 1981. He recalls that when he participated in his first fire as a firefighter, “I was home and heard there was a call, so I went out to Route 110 and when Merle Howe was driving by in the truck, I hitched a ride with them.
“Since there wasn’t any room in the truck cab, I jumped on the tailboard on the back of the truck and held on for dear life as we sped up to the fire in Chelsea at Tuffy Doyle’s house. That was the last time I ever rode on a tailboard!”
Prior to being elected TVFD chief, Durkee was involved as a volunteer firefighter and sat on the board as the treasurer and president. Before 1997, most chiefs in Tunbridge had held the position for a couple or few years, so Durkee never envisioned remaining in the one-year position for so long, and being elected to it 20 times.
He said he first notified the department of his desire to step down three or four years ago, and prior to each of the recent annual meetings, has asked his officers if anyone was interested in taking over as chief.
This year, Durkee didn’t ask, but instead informed his fellow firefighters that this was his last year in the position.
“Change is good, it is time for a change in the TVFD and new blood, views, and ideas should prove to be good for the future of the department,” he said. “I am confident we have the right people to take over the management of the department and I’m looking forward to someone else making the decisions and calling the shots.”
Durkee plans to stay on as a volunteer firefighter and help in any way he can. Coverage midweek is currently a big issue as there are only a few of the 15 Tunbridge firefighters who are local and available during weekdays. He is hopeful that there will be new volunteers coming forward this year to help maintain a strong department.
Durkee will maintain his role as the town emergency management coordinator for Tunbridge, an appointed position that, while not part of the TVFD, has related responsibilities.
When Durkee became the TVFD Chief in 1997, the department only had 1 truck. Prior to 1999, the TVFD had always paid for all of its equipment and needs on its own. In 1999, for the first time, they asked the town to commit money to help with the purchase of a 1991 Pierce Arrow pumper truck, which the town approved. The pumper truck is still being used today.
Since then, the department has worked hard writing and applying for federal grants to help pay for equipment, including 15 sets of turnout gear, portable radios and a tanker truck, totaling over $300,000 in grant money. Durkee mentioned these efforts were successful thanks to the efforts of many people.
In “the old days” the TVFD would receive used, hand-me-down gear from other fire departments and the firefighters would take whatever they could get.
“My first pair of boots for the job were a size 12, two sizes too big, so I would wad up paper and/or socks to put inside the boots so they would fit, sort of,” Durkee recalled.
He also remembers in the mid-to-late-1980s when the department purchased its first four or five sets of new turnout gear and the manufacturer misspelled the town’s name on the gear as “Turnbridge.”
New Gear, Training
Durkee feels proud of how the department has evolved in the last 20 years by adding equipment, trucks, gear, and greatly enhanced training for firefighters. While Durapprove kee oversaw and was critically involved in most of the changes and improvements, he makes it very clear that everything has been a group effort by all the members of, and everyone involved with, the TVFD. Durkee said he feels fortunate to have worked with so many hardworking and dedicated people.
The TVFD currently has a rescue truck, pumper truck, tanker, and a cutting-edge, high-tech Compressed Air Foam System (CAFS) truck that Durkee feels is the most efficient piece of firefighting equipment anywhere in the area.
Much of the money required to keep the TVFD running is still raised by two fundraisers the department does each year—the annual chicken dinner and the coin drop during the fair. As not to miss an opportunity, Durkee reminded me that they are always in great need of volunteers to help with the coin drop.
As a town resident, it’s clear to me that the TVFD has been very successful over the years. When I asked Durkee about this success, he said “I, the officers, and the board always put the needs of the town first. Our decisions are made with integrity and based on what will benefit and enhance the department and town.”
Durkee always stayed on top of new technology and information that would be beneficial to the department’s success as well as the safety of the firefighters.
With a fire department meeting scheduled every week, Durkee has overseen just shy of 1,000 meetings, trainings, and maintenance sessions since becoming chief; all in addition to fire calls, outside meetings, and much more.
He recalled the first structure fire he responded to as chief, which was on Monarch Hill Road in 1997, and mentioned how fast time goes by. While Durkee will stay busy running his CPA firm and volunteering in the previously mentioned positions, the prospect of spending more time camping and fishing down on the Cape is sounding pretty darn nice to him.
This first appeared in the Herald of Randolph March 2, 2017