BEATING THE HEAT — Volunteer firefighters are heat-seeking heroes
Updated: Jan 19
Today Magazine received a First Place SPJ Award for this story in 2020
By Bruce Deckert
Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
9/11 — these two numerals, severed by that slash, are seared into America’s psyche.
These numerals rouse images of terrorist-controlled airliners colliding with Twin Towers. These numerals recall stories of eyewitnesses who vividly recollect where they were when those burning skyscrapers imploded.
And yes, these numerals evoke accounts of extreme heroism ... of so many firefighters who rescued lives — and lost their lives — on that fateful day.
While firefighters in the tri-town area of Avon, Canton and Simsbury don’t have to contend with vertically soaring buildings, there’s another difference that is perhaps more significant: They volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way for their fellow citizens.
“We’re glad to do it,” says Simsbury fire chief James “Jim” Baldis, who notes that the most difficult aspect of his job is “having to respond to incidents and tragedies that involve members of the community you have known a good part of your life.”
The fire departments in Avon, Canton and Simsbury maintain a volunteer model that has served these towns well for decades. The Simsbury Volunteer Fire Company marked a milestone this year — its 75th anniversary. Founded in 1944, the fire company serves 23,000-plus residents. Before ’44, Simsbury-based Ensign Bickford provided fire protection for the town.
In Canton, the Collins Company supplied fire protection from the 1800s until the company closed in 1966. In 1950, company employees formed the Canton Memorial Ambulance, which merged with the Collins Company Fire Department in 1963. When the company shut its doors in ’66, the Collinsville Volunteer Fire Department was established. Today, the Canton Volunteer Fire & EMS Department serves 10,000-plus residents.
The Avon Volunteer Fire Department celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. Formed in 1943, the department protects 18,000-plus citizens via its four fire stations. Simsbury has six stations, while Canton has three. The three departments provide mutual aid as needed.
Avon fire chief Bruce Appell observes that such mutual support heightens the impact of a tragedy like 9/11: “The lives lost on that day can never be replaced or forgotten. Firefighters are a large family [and] 9/11 brought to light the dangers of the job that we face when someone wants to harm others.”
Canton chief Bruce Lockwood shares not only a first name with Appell but also a start date — both took on the chief’s role in January 2019.
“There is an amazing feeling of satisfaction when you have the opportunity to serve,” Lockwood says. “That feeling, however, comes with an incredible window into tragedy and sorrow. ... We see people when they are in crisis and most vulnerable. Dealing with that challenge requires a strong sense of family with other department members and, just as important, a strong and loving family at home.”
Baldis, who will turn 62 in late April, was born in Westport and raised in Simsbury.
“9/11 was the tipping point where the firefighter became recognized as a first responder on a broad basis,” he notes. “When the planes dropped from the skies on 9/11 ... as part of a terror plot, that certainly changed me — and I believe the entire fire services perspective on the scope and potential of our response. As time and circumstances evolve, we continue to expand our training, which involves working in partnership with law enforcement and EMS in response to potential domestic events.”
Baldis has served as chief for 15 years. He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1975. Appell, 50, has lived in Avon his entire life and has been a firefighter for 23 years. Lockwood, 53, has lived in Canton his whole life and became a volunteer firefighter in 1983.
The family theme resonates with this trio of chiefs.
“Our families sacrifice so that we can serve,” Lockwood says. “They are also our strength. Without family support, we could hardly exist.”
Lockwood’s granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law live in Simsbury — under the careful watch of Baldis and his volunteers. Lockwood also has relatives in Avon under Appell’s watch.
“The successes that I have achieved in my life,” Baldis says, “are largely a result of the support of my family and the community of volunteers who also serve this town.”
We call them unsung heroes — and while that’s an apt description, maybe it isn’t enough. Volunteer firefighters are unsung heroes, yes, but they’re more than that. Perhaps we need a new nomenclature. Action sports — aka extreme sports — are defined as high-risk activities that often involve speed, height, serious physical effort and specialized gear.
Firefighters encompass all the above — and when we consider that firefighters in Avon, Canton and Simsbury put their lives on the line as volunteers, the following might be a better designation: extreme unsung heroes.
• This article is as relevant today as when it was first published as the cover story of Avon Today, Canton Today and Simsbury Today magazines — the forerunners of Today Magazine — in April 2019, in both the print and digital editions • Click here for that magazine issue
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is a five-time SPJ award-winner — an ESPN.com editor for 17 years, he also served as a reporter and editor for the former Imprint Newspapers group that produced weekly papers for most Valley towns and several other towns in Greater Hartford
• This story received a First Place SPJ Award in 2020 in Connecticut's Local Reporting magazine category • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists