Goshen has a first in new fire chief – Department makes history with a woman at the helm

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GOSHEN – Only after selectmen appointed Susan Labrie the town’s new fire chief did they get around to asking how many other fire departments across the state had a woman at the helm.

The answer, said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, is none.

‘There’s never been a female fire chief,’ she said. ‘There’s hardly been any women in the fire services.’

William V. Dolan, the fire chief in North Andover and the secretary of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, said that the organization had no record of a woman ever holding the top post in the state.

Labrie, 42, has served in the volunteer department for 17 years. In 2003 she was appointed lieutenant.

She said she was thrilled by the selectmen’s decision to make her the chief.

‘I think I can do something good here,’ she said.

It is perhaps fitting that Labrie’s appointment has historic overtones. She succeeds Francis Dresser, who retired from the post earlier this year. At 81, Dresser had logged some 55 years of continuous service to the town as its fire chief and was believed to be one of the oldest chiefs — if not the oldest — in the state’s history.

But neither age nor gender had any bearing on the selectmen’s decision, said Kevin Lacey, the board chairman. Labrie was the unanimous choice in a field of three. The other candidates were Rick Clark and Kim Dresser, the former chief’s son, who was serving as the interim fire chief.

Lacey said that while all three could have led the department, Labrie was the best fit.

‘We believed that the future of the Fire Department was going to be best served by Sue,’ he said. ‘She’s energetic, she’s young and she has tremendous talent.’

Last year, Labrie completed the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy’s I/II Basic Training Class, even though the course is not required for volunteer firefighters.

Outside the fire station yesterday, Labrie said she was brimming with ideas. She plans, for example, to institute a chain of command. The department currently has a chief and a lieutenant. Labrie will add a deputy chief and captains.

She also hopes to begin developing a ‘pre-incident plan’ for each building in the town. Firefighters would gather critical information about each house and feed it to a laptop computer in the fire truck, so they could develop a plan of attack before arriving at the scene. They would know, for instance, where all the building’s entrances were, where to park, and where the water sources were.

But at the top of her list of priorities is fire prevention. Labrie is a certified SAFE (Student Awareness of Fire Education) instructor. She has been a fixture in local schools for the past decade, teaching fire safety and prevention.

‘We want to raise a fire-safe generation,’ said Labrie, who is married to a fellow firefighter, Robert Labrie. They have three daughters: Sarah, 13, Alyssa, 11, and Hannah, 5.

Labrie got the news of her promotion Monday night in a text message while working with Tanglewood’s Emergency Services during a James Taylor concert. Lacey had left word of the selectmen’s decision in a message on her husband’s phone.

The message Robert Labrie then sent to Susan said, ‘You got the job.’

Susan Labrie said that she looked across Tanglewood’s lawn and saw her husband and daughters, who were at the show, giving her a big thumb’s up.

‘It’s pretty cool,’ said Sarah. ‘She’s probably going to be going out a lot more.’

And Alyssa, who sports a ‘like mother like daughter’ T-shirt featuring a red fire truck, said that she hoped to be a firefighter someday.

The family connection is important to Labrie, a former systems analyst who stays home to raise her daughters. Her role model, she said, is her older brother, Michael Gorski, an assistant fire chief for the Hampden volunteer Fire Department. Despite an eight year age difference, she said, ‘he included me in everything.’

For his part, Gorski likes to recall that how his little sister would let him tie on splints or secure her to rescue boards while he practiced for first aid and emergency medical technician exams.

‘She always enjoyed helping me with those things,’ said Gorski. ‘She’s very capable, very devoted to her family and she’s certainly dedicated to fire services. She really wants to make a difference.’

Labrie said it was an honor to be the state’s first woman fire chief and said she would be flattered if it helped inspire young women to consider fire services. ‘I want them to know that if they put their heart into it and they work hard, they can achieve this, too,’ she said.

Labrie’s appointment met with praise both within the town and from area fire officials.

‘I’m real glad to hear that Sue got the job,’ said Williamsburg Fire Chief Donald Lawton. ‘I think she’s going to be a real asset for the whole area. She knows how to get things done.’

‘I believe it’s a good thing for the department,’ said Kim Dresser. ‘She was an excellent candidate. She’s got some great ideas and some great leadership skills.’

Labrie said she was grateful for the show of support, but not surprised. ‘When you get involved with a fire department, the people in it become an extended family. It keeps you coming back.’

New Goshen Fire Chief Susan Labrie at the fire station with her children, Hannah, 5, Alyssa, 11, and Sarah, 13. (Photo by Jerrey Roberts)

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