WHITMAN — When Deputy Fire Chief Joe Feeney retires from Whitman Fire on July 7, his final shift will mark the end of a 32-year career with the department.
Appointed to the department by former Chief Timothy Travers in June 1987, rising through the ranks to be appointed as deputy chief in 1999, Feeney got his start in firefighting while he was a member of the merchant marine.
“Joe is a great asset to our department and to our operations,” Fire Chief Timothy Grenno told the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, May 14. “His retirement is going to leave a large void, which will not only be felt by me, but all the members of our department. Joe has been an outstanding firefighter and deputy fire chief.”
A retirement party is planned for June 22 at the Whitman VFW pavilion, with tickets available at the fire station.
Feeney is a person who tries to avoid that kind of fuss, but he’s going to get one, anyway.
“[After] 32 years in, I think enough’s enough,” he said while sitting in the dispatch room on a recent 24-hour shift, but he always liked the job. “Most days are like the best day on the job. I always like the people I’ve worked with — every guy here is great and it feels like you’re playing for a winning team.”
He said relaxation is not a specific retirement plan.
“This is relaxed right now,” he said of downtime between calls. “I have a couple of things I’m working on.”
If Feeney is reticent about his résumé, his superior officers have been just as effusive.
“It’s going to be hard shoes to fill,” Grenno said of Feeney’s departure. “He’s done some tremendous things and his knowledge, his sense of humor, his wit is going to be sorely missed by all of us.”
Lt. Al Cunningham, who tops the civil service list will succeed Feeney as deputy chief, according to Grenno. Cunningham and Feeney are working together on Tuesday inspection rounds.
“Joe’s had some of the more significant fires that we’ve had in town,” Grenno said. “[He] has seen his share of grief and terror and he has seen his share of happiness around here with births in the field.”
He was the shift officer for the Commercial Street fire last winter, as well as a fire that had broken out a month before the new high school opened as well as “some of the more tragic events in town” including fatal car crashes.
For Grenno, knowing when Feeney is on shift means he can relax when he is off duty.
Feeney did not come from a family of firefighters, and describes his career path as something akin to a beneficial accident.
“In that profession, everyone had to learn firefighting,” Feeney said of his stint as a merchant marine, and he received that training while a cadet at the Mass. Maritime Academy. “I never thought that much about it, although I had been in a couple of ship-board fires and we just did our job like we were trained — it didn’t seem like a big deal.”
He was working in the field for three years after graduating and was looking for a steadier paycheck because the merchant marines offered sporadic employment. Someone suggested he take the fire exam and he thought that sounded like a good idea.
“My ultimate goal, believe it or not, was to get on the Boston [FD] fire boat, which might be one of the most boring jobs in the world, if you ask the guys who work up there,” he recalled. “But it looks cool.”
After taking the fire exam, he was called by Whitman, where he lived at the time. A native of Brockton, Feeney’s parents had moved to Whitman when he was in college.
“Tim Grenno’s father called me in and I signed for him,” Feeney said. The elder Grenno was retiring and he wanted the incoming Chief Travers to meet with Feeney. Travers sent Feeney to the Mass. Fire Academy after hiring him on and, by the time he had a spot at the academy, Feeney had been working for the department for almost a year.
“He was the first firefighter that I hired,” Travers recalled. “Joe was very well educated and [he] came in on the job with a bachelor’s degree and, in those days not too many firefighters had advanced degrees. I was impressed by that.”
Feeney and Robert Holver were the first two Whitman firefighters to go through the Mass. Fire Academy, where local academies had been used before that time.
He topped the lieutenant’s test after about 10 years, went to grad school for a master’s degree in fire science from the University of New Haven — the first Whitman firefighter to hold an advanced degree, Travers said — and attended the National Fire Academy where he was certified as an executive fire officer as well as obtaining local chief officer certification from the state academy. He holds about a dozen other certifications in fire prevention and inspections.
He then topped the deputy chief’s exam, a rank he has held in Whitman for 20 years.
“He’s a no-nonsense type of guy,” Travers said. “He didn’t get wrapped up in the politics in the fire department. Joe stayed on his own, did his own thing, did his job, and did it well.”
Travers said that after his retirement, Feeney probably could have had the fire chief’s job if he wanted it.
“I’m quite sure he didn’t want it,” he said.
Over his career in firefighting, Feeney has seen big changes in emergency medical services (EMS), which comprise two-thirds of emergency calls into the department these days. Different construction types now in use also present challenges as builders use lighter, cheaper materials, he said.
“They seem to behave poorly during a fire,” Feeney said, noting some of the materials also present health concerns for firefighters. “Some of the glues, some of the materials, the furnishings, are giving off bad chemicals that end up on us or in us — even with good equipment on.”
He echoed Grenno’s concern about cancer prevention.
“There’s a lot of cancer awareness in our job, more on restricting where in the station you can go with turnout gear that’s been exposed to smoke and fire,” Feeney said. “We keep it all basically in the apparatus floor or in the wash area.”
Responses to drug overdoses and mental illness issues are also more numerous today.
“I think, when I first started, we went to one heroin overdose a year and now we go to one a week — maybe more,” Feeney said.
“We meet people at their worst, sometimes it’s the worst day of their life,” Feeney said. “So you have to be kind of thick-skinned and don’t take it with you. … When you take the job, you know that’s going to happen and as long as you’re mentally prepared …”