Bob Campbell: One of an army of volunteers

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Mon., Mar. 4, 2013
(L to r) Lt. Brian Bardier, Assistant Chief Robert Campbell and Captain Ray Phillips. Photos by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Lt. Brian Bardier, Assistant Chief Robert Campbell and Captain Ray Phillips. Photos by D. Coffey.

When the call came in Jan. 28 for a structure fire on Prospect Street in Putnam, Robert Campbell was the first volunteer firefighter on the scene. Police were getting residents out of the building when he arrived. Flames were already shooting 20 feet over the roof. “When I got there, they said children were on the third floor,” Campbell said. “So I went up the stairwell. The mother was in the stairwell screaming, 'My babies. My babies. I need my babies.' I got her out of the house and I tried to get in as far as I could.”

Campbell made it about 6 feet before the heat and heavy smoke forced him to turn around. In the meantime, Assistant Fire Chief Norman Perron arrived. “I know he's in the building,” Perron said. “I'm calling and he's not responding. Finally he says, 'I'm coming out.' I know he doesn't have his gear. I know what his intentions are.”

Perron, who had been able to see the fire from his house, knew that the fire had been burning for some time. The first crew sent in was called out after Campbell saw fire below where they were working. A second crew was called out when blue gases were seen coming out of a window. “At that point, we made the decision not to leave our guys in there,” said Campbell. “It's a tough decision.”

Campbell has been a volunteer firefighter in Putnam for 32 years. He hasn't come by his experience lightly. He's had to meet state and OSHA standards. The Firefighter I course required approximately 200 hours of hands-on and textbook learning. Some certifications are required annually. And he trains regularly with fellow crew members at the Putnam Fire Station.

Campbell is an assistant chief in Putnam. He's risen through the ranks because of his experience and training. Volunteers are trained to the same level as professional firefighters, according to Perron. The difference is that volunteer firefighters train in their spare time. As an assistant chief, Campbell is trained to set up command, know where to put his trucks and equipment. He knows where hydrants are.

A truck with 750 gallons of water will run out quickly once it starts pumping 200 gallons a minute. “Someone better get that truck tied in to a hydrant,” he said. There are other scenarios he has to be prepared for: vehicle accidents, hazardous material spills, brush fires. For his commitment he's rewarded with an annual stipend. Firefighters in Putnam receive approximately $800 a year. Officers get a little more, he said.

It's not money that drives him. “I always wanted to help out in the community,” he said. “There were people who led me this way.” He mentioned Norman Perron and Norman Bernier. “They pushed me to learn more and do more,” he said.

The Prospect Street fire claimed the lives of 3-year-old Alexis Auger and her 9-month-old sister, Ava. “I talked with the father,” Campbell said. “He was very thankful for what everyone did and all the people who tried to help. That eased our minds.” The state's crisis management team met with responding emergency personnel. “They walked us through things,” Campbell said. “They told us it was okay to feel bad. In the back of your mind you wonder if there was anything else you could have done to get them out. We've had fatal fires before, but in all our history this is the worst because two little girls lost their lives. It's affected the whole community.”

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