BELFAST, Maine — Fire Chief James L. Richards Sr. has received plenty of praise from City Hall during his 40-year career with the department, but he never dreamed the City Council would name the fire station after him.
“I was surprised. I’m very honored,” Richards said Wednesday. “I’ve enjoyed it over the years. I’ve had a lot of good people. If you have a good crew, fire and ambulance, it makes your job a lot easier.”
The council announced its decision during a special meeting held Tuesday evening at the fire station.
The meeting was called at the last minute to ensure that the reticent Richards didn’t catch wind of it. Despite having served as chief for the longest time in city history, Richards has a history of avoiding the limelight.
“If I knew what they had in mind, I never would have come down here,” he said.
The ageless Richards, 77, joined the Fire Department in 1968 and was appointed fire chief six years later. Less than 48 hours after his appointment, a major fire swept through the downtown business district and wiped out seven businesses.
“I was sworn in as chief 10 o’clock Friday morning and half the town burned down Sunday morning,” he said. “I was worried about what would happen if we ever had a big fire and I found out right away. That took the pressure off. I haven’t had any pressure since then.”
In those days, the Fire Department was located on the ground floor of City Hall, an area so cramped that some of the fire equipment was kept at the Public Works Department garage. Two ambulances also were kept in the department. The station’s space was inadequate, which made it difficult to move trucks in and out.
Richards had advocated for a larger fire station for years, and the City Council eventually backed his plans. The six-bay fire station, which soon will bear a brass plaque in his honor, was dedicated in 1988.
The dedication will read: “Belfast Fire Department, James L. Richards Sr. Station, dedicated to the years of meritorious service of Chief James L. Richards Sr.”
The department has 32 paid members, and the ambulance department has another 20 paid members. Richards and three paramedics are the only full-time employees with the department. The department has a contract to provide service to Swanville, and the ambulance has contracts with Swanville, Northport, Belmont, Morrill and Waldo.
While the city has had some major fires over the years, fire prevention education and building codes have helped limit that number, he said. He said the ambulance service handles about 2,000 calls a year.
“We’ve been lucky on structure fires [the] last few years,” Richards said. “We don’t know what will happen this year, with people putting in wood stoves and space heaters. I hope they call us for inspections if they do.”
As for thoughts of retirement, the chief said his health is good and he still enjoys the job and working with the members of the department and the community.
“I have no plans to retire. I might wake up some day and say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but not yet,” Richards said. “My health is still good and I like coming to work.”