DEDHAM, Maine — Frank Myatt has seen a lot of changes over the years in the ways local towns deal with fires and other emergencies.
Since Myatt started with the local fire department in 1975, different types of equipment, training and emergencies have materialized and affected how fire departments operate, he said.
For Myatt and the Dedham-Lucerne Fire Department, however, one of the biggest changes they’ve seen in recent decades occurred on Aug. 5. That’s when Myatt retired as chief of the department, a post he has held since 1983.
“Age,” he said Saturday, sitting at a table at the local fire station, when asked why he has decided to hang up his white fireman’s helmet. “It’s a young man’s game. I’m 75.”
Craig Shane, he said, has been named interim fire chief while selectmen search for a new permanent chief.
Reflecting upon his career, Myatt said that in 1975, firefighters used turnout gear that was more waterproof than fireproof.
“When I started, we used rubber hip boots, rubber coats and tin helmets,” he said. “It was completely different. We didn’t have the real training we have today.”
The use of better equipment such as more protective breathing apparatuses and powered extrication devices for getting people out of wrecked cars also has become more widespread since the 1970s, he said.
The number of firefighters in the department has decreased, Myatt said, but the amount of training the staff has received has increased. Still, even if the staff has more professional training now than it did decades ago, Myatt said, volunteer staffing is a constant issue, even with mutual aid agreements with neighboring towns.
“It’s always a problem finding people,” he said. “People have to work.”
The public is better educated now about fire safety than it was years ago, he said, and safer electrical standards and more smoke detectors also have improved fire prevention efforts. There are fewer structure fires than there used to be but, with emergency medical services now part of their regimen, the fire department has seen its call volume increase dramatically, he said.
In the mid-1970s, he said, the fire department got called out 10 to 15 times a year. Now it gets roughly 140 to 150 calls a year, with about 85 percent of those calls for emergency medical responses.
Many of those calls are for motor vehicle accidents, he said. Route 1A in Dedham, which is the primary road between the Bangor area and the Down East coast, has seen its share of bad accidents over the years.
Improvements to the road in Ellsworth since 2005 have reduced the bottleneck effect, which in turn has had a calming effect on traffic as it passes through Dedham, he said, but still bad accidents happen.
Less than a year ago, in September 2010, there was a fatal accident that killed a family of three from Jonesport on the highway. That collision and one in 1984, when a man who had just been involved in a Route 1A accident died while Myatt was talking to him, have stuck in his mind.
“Even if you don’t know the person, it’s hard,” Myatt said of responding to fatal accidents. “It’s always hard if it’s a kid [who dies].”
Other memories are easier to recall. Myatt’s daughter, Erin Small, said Saturday that her father once threatened to have her arrested if she didn’t stay back when her brother’s home caught fire.
Myatt chuckled Saturday at the memory but said, at the time, he was concerned about his son and didn’t want to worry about his daughter, too. His son was unhurt in the blaze but the home was destroyed, he added.
“People don’t realize how dangerous it is,” Myatt said.
Under his leadership, the department has added four new trucks — two in the late 1980s and two more in 1996 — which are divided evenly between the station on Bald Mountain Road and the substation by the Lucerne Inn on Route 1A.
In 1999, after the 1998 ice storm caused power outages that lasted two weeks, a new station was built on Bald Mountain Road to replace the one across the street that previously had been used as a school house. The ice storm had led to a rash of fire calls resulting from people trying to stay warm by using old fireplaces or other unusual heat sources, Myatt said, and the town thought it would be good to have an up-to-date building it could use as an emergency shelter.
Myatt said he plans to stay busy by continuing to serve on the town’s budget committee and that he hopes to reinvigorate the department’s auxiliary service. If he has time, he hopes to do more fishing and traveling, he said.
The retired chief said he will miss the close interaction he has had with other firefighters.
“When there’s excitement, maybe I’ll listen to it [on the scanner],” Myatt said. “But maybe I’ll shut it off.”