Originally published in the Manchester Journal on Feb. 9, 2018
By Cherise Madigan
MANCHESTER — Chief Philip Bourn of the Manchester Fire Department will soon be retiring from his post for the second time, following almost 40 years of service as a Manchester firefighter.
Bourn, more affectionately referred to by his childhood nickname “Grub,” won’t be hanging his helmet just yet, however. The Fire Chief will continue to serve among the MFD’s ranks, under the leadership of incoming Chief Chris Towslee.
“I’ve been here long enough; I need a break from it, they need a break from me, but I’m not going anywhere,” Bourn laughed. “I’ll still be around, and as Chris steps in I’ll be by his side.”
Towslee isn’t entirely new to the position, though. When Bourn stepped down after five years as Chief in 1999, Towslee took control of the Fire Department until 2003.
Though he’s willing to take the reigns once again, Towslee says that a lack of new recruits has been a factor in both his and Bourn’s recurring leadership.
“There’s not really anybody that wanted to step into the Chief’s shoes per se, or wear the big helmet,” Towslee explained. “Some of the other firefighters asked me if I’d step up and take over for Grub, and try to make the transition easier.”
Attracting new recruits will be a major goal during his time as Chief, Towslee says, alongside keeping morale strong. Those are important goals for a department that continues to age, Bourn explains, with no clear line of succession.
“Most of the guys that have been here for 25 or 30 years are getting older, and we need young members,” said Bourn, who has found hope in initiatives like Manchester’s zoning revision, intended to attract younger residents to the region among other goals. “Hopefully when you get those young people, you’ll also get some who want to join the Fire Department. In another five years, it’s not going to be pretty around here.”
“Hopefully the word gets out there that we are a good group of people, and more recruits will come forward and be willing to join this group of firefighters,” Towslee added. “We’re trying to get some more training for the guys below us, so that we’ll have more people who are willing to move up the ladder and someday be chief.”
Still, the position is an intensive one. Beyond the duty to respond to emergencies and train, the Fire Chief is expected to put in an average of twenty hours per week on top of other professional and familial obligations. As Towslee points out, there’s something that needs to be done every day.
“This town has gotten a lot bigger, and the responsibility of being Fire Chief in the town of Manchester has grown with it,” he said. “Fighting fires is one thing, but the responsibility behind it is a lot to take in, and a lot to cover.”
“Being chief, the firefighting is the easiest part,” Bourn said. “Managing 35 to 40 guys, and trying to keep everybody happy, is not easy.”
For Bourn, who has also owned the local Bourn’s Tire and Auto Center for over 40 years, that heavy workload eventually took its toll. After discovering health issues last year, the Fire Chief underwent heart surgery this summer. With a business to manage, a Fire Department to run, and over 100 plowing accounts on his plate, Bourn says that it was time to slow down.
Though he now has a clean bill of health, Bourn has also decided to put his business on the market in the interest of retiring.
“When the doctor says you need to slow down, that you might have a heart attack or stroke, you pay attention to that,” Bourn said. “I hadn’t realized that I was sick; I lost my fight.”
His commitment to maintain an active role in the department has made the transition easier, Bourn said, and he’s proud of the work that he’s done for the Manchester community. In his time as Chief, Bourn says that he has overseen the procurement of an upgraded radio system, a 95 ft. tower truck, and the construction of a new public safety facility.
Though Bourn admits that his goals were lofty in retrospect, the Chief notes that he had a family legacy to live up to.
“My father was Fire Chief for 18 years,” Bourn said. “He was chief when I was born in 1953, and he was chief until 1970. I was going through some paperwork the other day when I found some that had his signature on it, from the 1950’s.”
In his own retirement, Bourn says that his goals are to “plow snow, teach, and play golf in the summer.” As a Vermont State Fire Instructor, the Chief hopes to continue sharing the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years.
“I’m not going to stop working; it would kill me,” Bourn said. “I’ll go back to driving and pumping water, and I’m going to put more emphasis on teaching fire training.”
“His knowledge will be a big asset to the department,” Towslee said, expressing his gratitude for Bourn’s service to the town of Manchester. “We have a good group of firefighters. We’ll still be the same group of guys willing to go out there and do our job when we’re called upon.”
While Bourn is grateful to have been continually re-elected a Chief over the last decade, he explains that it was time to take a step back, and keep an eye focused on the future.
“I’m going to miss it, but there’s a time when you’ve got to say that enough is enough,” Bourn said. “I’ve had a hell of a good run of this, and I felt that this was a good time to get out on high.”
Reach Cherise Madigan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 802-490-6471.