Walter Giard is closing in on 40 years with the Worcester Fire Department and the last 10 have been his proudest. He has watched, and in many cases directed, the transformation of the department since the fire in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. on Dec. 3, 1999.
Giard is the district fire chief in charge of training and has had direct involvement in developing training programs and evaluating equipment and technology with one thing in mind – firefighter safety.
“The last 10 years has been the proudest 10 years on the job,” Giard said, adding that it’s the attitude of each firefighter that has really made the difference.
From the moment representatives of the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH), part of the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), issued their report, Worcester has been focused on making firefighters safer in the city.
More importantly, Giard said the department focused on its own investigation.
“We wanted to keep the scope of our inquiry to a single question,” Giard said. “What could we do that would have stopped, or might have prevented this from happening?”
Too many times, departments who suffer unfortunate and tragic events focus on things that can be distracting and try to revamp the entire department top to bottom, Giard said, but Worcester didn’t want to do that.
He said the department “tried to bite off those thorny issues” that needed attention and develop a plan to remedy them. From that, department brass made recommendations on firefighter safety that included more thermal imaging cameras, tracking systems and portable radios for everyone, not just a couple for each crew.
Giard said Worcester also worked on firefighter survival and rescue training.
“We decided to invest ourselves in a rapid intervention team and looked at what works and didn’t work for a department our size,” Giard said. “We really feel that an ill-equipped and poorly trained rapid intervention team is the most dangerous thing on the fire ground.”
Worcester now has a RIT system in place that is fairly well-equipped and trained to do the job after lots of trial an error, Giard said.
“And, we have a command system that commits them, or not, which is just as important, to a situation,” he said.
As training is his bailiwick, Giard said the department has spent about as much time training on how to stay out of trouble to avoid the need for the RIT.
In the process Giard said, “We became much better firefighters. I think that’s the greatest effort that I’ve seen in our training division that has gone on.”
Giard also said the training division has grown exponentially in the past 10 years with the help of funding from The Leary Firefighters Foundation, established by actor Dennis Leary, to help the department recover from the fire that claimed a cousin and friend who lived in his hometown.
Behind the Grove Street station, the city now has a state-of-the-art burn facility and dedicated classrooms. Prior to that, Giard said he had a parking lot and a portable trailer for an office.
“It has become a regional place to train,” he said. “That has been a big factor in our ability to train hard and train our people to the level I think they are.”
Giard said that a group of people from the department’s safety division started sharing their message of safety and survival to audiences nationwide through seminars that helped the department raise money for equipment and to help build the memorial to the fallen firefighters.
“We’re all very proud of that,” Giard said.