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Never Forget

BFD Remembers Ex-Chief Robert J. (Bobby) Nielsen
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By President Gail Carmody
April 1, 2024

We are proud to honor the life and service of Ex-Chief (1981-1983) and beloved member, Robert J. Nielsen who passed away on January 9, 2024, at the age of 90.

Bobby joined the Bedford Fire Department in 1967 and rose through the ranks from Lieutenant (1974-75) to Captain (1975-77), to 2nd Assistant Chief (1977-79), to 1st Assistant Chief in (1979-81) and finally to Chief in April 1981 to 1983. He later became a trustee of the Bedford Village Benevolent Association where he served for 35 years.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Chief of an all-volunteer emergency response department. In addition to recruiting, training, and managing all personnel the Chief must ensure that the company has the right apparatus for the evolving needs of the district and maintain compliance with various municipal codes and standards of practice. It is also easy to forget how we got here. Bedford Village was a different place in the early 1980s of Bobby’s administration and the changes that came to the fire service at that time, were profound and shaped the way we do things today.

The 80’s was a transitional time for volunteer fire companies across the country; a national commission study had pointed to many deficiencies in the US approach to firefighting and led to a new national law governing fire prevention services that included advances in training and standards of practice. In Bedford Village we had already been focused on training, but it was not always easy to corral the men (we only had men at that time). In 1979 in his role as Asst Chief Bobby had reason to complain that none of the 8 men who had signed up for Fire Essentials training (the precursor course to Firefighter 1) had actually shown up to take the training. This prompted the Chiefs to mandate that all firemen with 5 years or less in the dept must immediately take Fire Essentials. This training mandate is still in place today – although now we give members the option of taking either Firefighter 1 or EMT-Basic during their first six months in the department.

Another change that was happening locally was the shift in alarm type. Growth in housing in Bedford had reduced the number of brush fires in our district, but the increase in smoke detector usage had also reduced the number of house fires; meanwhile EMS calls were rising. In 1981, Bobby’s first year as Chief, BFD attended 130 ambulance calls compared to 96 calls for fire. Traffic accidents, in particular, were increasing. In December of 1981, Bobby had reason to thank the men for “the good job they had done at the recent severe accident at the 172 and 684 interchange.” But he also noted that it is not just the EMTs that need to operate lifesaving equipment: “each member should familiarize themselves with the ambulance.” The following year his praise for the men was unqualified for the EMS rescue and resuscitation of a 3-year-old who had fallen through the ice. “It was only due to their efforts” he said, “that the boy had a chance of recovering”.

One of the key roles of the Chiefs is to recommend new apparatus purchases to the District Commissioners. With the changes going on in the Village, there were 3 new apparatus committees in play during Bobby’s administration: one for a tanker, one for a brush fire truck, and one for a new ambulance. The tanker was important because Bedford has a lot of large houses but very few fire hydrants. However, when the specifications for the tanker were studied by the committee it was determined that the old firehouse floor could not withstand the weight of a loaded tanker. So, to ensure that the apparatus bay did not fall onto the bowling alley in the basement of the old Firehouse, Bobby reluctantly recommended to the district commissioners that Bedford not procure a tanker.

Not all Bobby’s recommendations to the Commissioners were actioned. He recommended that the district purchase a fly car for the Chief to be first on scene to manage an incident, and he recommended that some of the costs on the men’s uniforms be paid for by the district – at that time the $225 cost was borne by each man personally. Neither of these were approved at the time but have since become general practice.

Maybe the hardest role of a Chief is managing the other volunteer members. This was especially true as the department was transitioning from a group of ‘good men doing best efforts in times of need’ to a group of ‘trained and certified’ first responders. Bobby had his work cut out. Drinking beer on calls was prohibited by the Chiefs in 1980 and this was not a popular decision with everyone. In 1982 Bobby also required that any bowling in the fire house must be stopped if a call came in and could not re-commence until the call was cleared. And on calls he requested that drivers stay with the vehicle during the call, no freelancing. He also cracked down on bad behavior in the firehouse including items going missing from the truck floor, which was sometimes hard to track, except for when the item missing was a fire truck! – on that occasion the offending member was suspended. At other times he came up with novel ways to drive behavior: when the Firehouse phone bill was loaded with personal long distance calls he had the phone company send us the records and read the call recipients out at the monthly meeting. But Bobby was incredibly fair and compassionate and definitely struggled with his duty to remove members from the rolls that did not meet the company requirements; he made it clear that he would give everyone every chance to comply and would only do what was mandated in the bylaws. In short, he was firm but more than fair.

He liked order and discipline. When he ran the annual fundraiser for the fire company he proposed that members go door-to-door throughout the Village on a fund drive. For this he asked that “all men are to be neatly dressed and a uniform hat must be worn by all. No man will be out on the drive after dark. And the beer room will be closed during fund drive hours”. Though he needed to rally the men to participate his efforts were ultimately very successful and rewarded with the highest show of respect from the men according to the meeting minutes: “John Barry said ‘he deserves a round of applause for the drive’. And one was given”.

And so, to Bobby, Chief, we miss you, we salute you, and we thank you for your service.

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Bedford Fire Department June 06, 2024 at 2:43 PM

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