MONTVILLE — Fire Chief John York said when they bury him is when he will give up firefighting, because it is in his blood and also because  he enjoys it. There is a certain satisfaction, he said, “when a homeowner comes out and says ‘Thank you.’”

All told, York has 57 years of experience in emergency services, between the time he began his firefighting career in 1964 serving a town outside of Kingston, New York, and the time he has been in Maine serving on multiple departments. 

Rep. S. Paige Zeigler, D-Montville, presented York with a legislative sentiment signed by members of the Legislature March 8, acknowledging his many years in public service. Although Zeigler had wanted him to come to Augusta to receive the sentiment where 150 people would stand up and applaud, York said, “I made him come here so I can share this with you guys.

Retiring after over 13 years of service with the Monville Fire Department, Doug Thomas, right, receives a plaque from Fire Chief John York as state Rep. S. Paige Zeigler looks on March 8. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

“Without you guys doing the work,” he said, motioning to the crew seated in front of him at the Montville Fire Station, “I’m nothing … This is for all of us.”

He began his service at 19, joining the fire department in St. Remy, New York, the same year he joined the National Guard, where he spent seven years. He and his family lived on the side of a mountain which was only 1.2 miles from the firehouse. Back then he said, the state provided for training courses, which he took advantage of and “got to be good” as a fireman. “I’ve got all kinds of valuable training,” he said. 

By day York worked at an ice company and later worked for IBM on a manufacturing line at the East Fishkill, New York, plant. While at IBM, he began working in the facilities maintenance department, repairing machines when lines went down. He said he was also part of the plant’s emergency squad, which had its own fire truck and brigade. 

IBM was “extremely supportive” in terms of training, he said, and it was beneficial for the company, too, having trained firefighters on staff. After 30 years, IBM offered him a buyout, which he took, and started his own business fixing firetrucks, tractors and heavy equipment. “I never lacked work,” he said. Then, after the infamous 1998 ice storm, York packed up his family and moved to Maine.

In Maine, York worked for Reliance Equipment of Vassalboro, a firetruck service and repair shop, and Penobscot McCrum, a potato processing plant in Belfast, where he fixed machinery. After his stint at McCrum, York retired. “The town of Montville has been stuck with me ever since,” he said.

When Richard Peavey, the fire chief back in 2004, asked York to take over for him as chief, the department was at its wits’ end, York said. There was a division in the town, with some people who did not appreciate the Fire Department. Nobody wanted the job of chief, but the department had a good crew, he said.

“Many people are so independent they don’t like calling for help or are embarrassed to ask for help,” he said. Also, to them the fire chief is a stranger. In the previous culture, the public was not treated as a customer, he said. “We’ve tried to build a positive reputation here.” 

York, who lives on the Freedom-Montville line, had originally joined the Freedom Fire Department, thinking he lived in Freedom. After thinking about Peavey’s offer, and discovering he actually lived in Montville, he asked his wife, who said, “You have to be chief, it’s your town.”

He decided to join the department in 2005 and was voted in as chief by the Select Board on the same night. Fast-forward to today, he said, and there is an understanding that, “Nobody in any fire service is any good as an individual — you need to have a good team.”

Currently York has 15 firefighters and about five auxiliary members who support all aspects of the department. Of the 15 regular members, not all are trained to work inside a burning structure, he said. And anyone who comes in seeking a burn permit gets his recruitment speech, York .

He has worked hard to foster an atmosphere of support for his crew, running the department on a lean budget with the help of grants and with as little drama as possible. Unfortunately, he said, there is a certain amount of drama inherent in the job just because of the nature of emergencies. “People get hurt and that affects you,” he said. At the core, he said, “we have a good group of people.”

York was appointed as Montville’s Emergency Management Director in 2006 after the town approved an Emergency Operations Plan. Since then he has received required training and certifications to be sure that the town has an effective and compliant emergency program.  

That training, he said, taught him that there is a lot of work to do to get a good program in place and meet all legal and other requirements. There were many documents, forms and plans to develop, physical space for the department was needed, along with ongoing training and providing education and information to the town.

A retirement cake for Doug Thomas March 8 at the Montville Fire Station.

Just as the Fire Department will always be evolving, he said, so will the emergency management program change, “as laws, mandates and tides will dictate.”  One example of the evolution of the emergency program was at last year’s town meeting, when the Emergency Operations Plan was changed to an ordinance.  

“This program helps us to know what has to be done and how to do it,” he said. “It also makes available to us more grant opportunities that we could not have applied for before enacting the ordinance.” 

In 2020, the Fire Department, which encompasses all emergency services for the town, had 105 runs with approximately 20 calls relating to car crashes. Building fires and wildfires, York estimates, account for about 5% of all calls. “We have not failed to get out since 2004,” he said, even if at times there was only one person with a pickup truck. “If there is a 911 call made, we got to go.”

Fire crews, York explained, handle all public safety calls for the town, ranging from fires to crashes to lost dogs, where the department has spent hours assisting people in retrieving an injured pet from inside a culvert. “Trees down, we ask how big is it?” he said. 

“I am also the town’s fire warden,” he added. This responsibility includes issuing and checking on burn permits, and educating officials and residents about the legal requirements for burning.

When asked about the possibility of his retiring as chief, York said everyone has an expiration date and added that he is training people coming up through the department for this inevitable event.

“All I did was lead this place,” he said. “It’s the people that are doing it. Without all these people, I’m (nobody).”