MS put retiring fire chief in wheelchair, but he's pushed back for 12 more yearsBy JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent
March 06. 2017 11:25PM
BRENTWOOD — Fire Chief Kevin Lemoine plans to hang up his helmet next month after 38 years with the Brentwood Fire Department. The decision to retire wasn’t easy, but Lemoine — who’s battled multiple sclerosis for 28 years — said it’s time.
“I can’t do the job the way it should be done. The chief’s job is an important job and I don’t want to bring it down trying to do it when I can’t do it,” he said.
Lemoine has stayed dedicated to the job despite being forced into a wheelchair 12 years ago.
Gilford Fire Chief Stephen Carrier, president of the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs, said he’s not aware of any other chiefs currently serving who use a wheelchair.
Despite his limitations, the 58-year-old Lemoine has been able to oversee fire scenes, medical calls and other emergencies from the driver’s seat of his wheelchair van.
“Going to fires isn’t tough because once I’m there I usually stay out front with my vehicle, but getting there, it takes a little longer for me to get going,” he said.
Showing up in his wheelchair van has some advantages. Unlike other fire chiefs who may move around a lot, Lemoine can always be located.
“They know where I am. They see my vehicle. They know I’m there,” he said.
Lemoine said some people raised concerns when he was appointed chief in 2001 because of his disability, but he proved that the job could be done. He said 10 percent of the chief’s job is responding to calls; the rest of the time is spent dealing with issues related to personnel and administrative duties.
“I’ve had a lot of support. That’s always been a big thing,” he said.
Deputy Fire Chief Joe Bird has been with the department for 28 years; he said he’ll miss Lemoine.
“It’s been tough watching him go from an active person to the wheelchair that he’s in now, but he still does a great job with command,” Bird said. “He’s very good at interpreting what his officers have given him for information, and that’s made a difference in some calls.”
Diagnosed in 1989
Lemoine was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1989 and assumed it would bring an early end to his career, but he got lucky. While serving with the Brentwood department, he was also working as a full-time firefighter in Hampton and was able to switch to a dispatching job there.
He left the Hampton Fire Department in 2005, which is when he began using his wheelchair most of the time.
Lemoine said that when he took the fire chief’s job, he figured he’d do it for a year and hand it off to someone else. He has offered to help out the new chief, William Campbell, over the next year.
The 34-member department has two full-time firefighters. The rest are paid call firefighters and EMTs.
Lemoine said the toughest call of his career was to the fatal shooting of Brentwood police officer Stephen Arkell in 2014. The incident was bad enough with the gunfire and explosion at the gunman’s home that followed, but Lemoine had also grown up with Arkell and knew him well.
“There was a lot to deal with that day,” he said.
‘A very capable chief’
The 2016 Town Report was dedicated to Lemoine and acknowledged his commitment to the town and the fire service. “Being in a wheelchair has never hindered his ability to perform as chief of Brentwood’s Fire Department. His knowledge, motivation and strategy of planning for future department needs have made him a very capable chief,” the dedication said.
Firefighter/EMT Albert Kozacka joined the department three years ago and was the first firefighter to participate in a “live-in” program started by Lemoine. The program allows a prospective firefighter to live at the station, answer calls and perform other chores while attending school.
Kozacka said Lemoine’s condition hasn’t stopped him from staying on top of things at the station.
“He knows everything that’s going on in the building,” he said.
At an emergency scene, Kozacka said Lemoine always “knows what we need and knows what needs to be done.”