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Greenfield fire captains’ studies pay off

Jarvis, Phelps earn promotion with exam success, experience

The Greenfield Fire Department's newest captains, Edward Jarvis and Kyle Phelps, pose in front  of Engine One. At bottom left, their turnout gear awaits, should they be called into action.

The Greenfield Fire Department's newest captains, Edward Jarvis and Kyle Phelps, pose in front of Engine One. At bottom left, their turnout gear awaits, should they be called into action. Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Two local firefighters share the rank of captain, but they run two different ships.

Edward Jarvis and Kyle Phelps, both captains with the Greenfield Fire Department, may have different day-to-day duties — Jarvis is the department’s fire prevention inspector, while Phelps is a shift commander, and in charge of firefighter training — but they both started out on the front lines of firefighting.

Another thing Phelps and Jarvis have in common is the path they took to earn the rank of captain.

The two men spent countless hours poring over the pages of 13 books assigned as part of the Civil Service process. Nine months of studying and memorization were boiled down into a 31∕2-hour exam.

There was no class to attend, no instructors to guide their education; the captains were given a list of books and a couple of study guides, but were otherwise on their own, though they did help each other study.

“The state’s Civil Service test is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Phelps.

Jarvis agreed.

“I used to have a 3.85 GPA when I was at Greenfield Community College,” said Jarvis. “It took me five tries to pass the exam.”

Phelps passed after two tries, but at a cost.

“I have three kids, and I spent months studying in the basement. I missed a lot,” he said. “It was tough on my wife; I couldn’t have done it without her.”

“The Civil Service exam process for promotion requires that the individual essentially put their life on hold for a minimum of six months to a year prior to the competitive exam, to study,” said Fire Chief Michael Winn. “The Civil Service exam process as designed is very hard and very competitive.” Winn said he studied for several years before taking the chief’s exam.

Both captains spent more than just time on their studies. Their books cost more than $1,000, and each time they took the test, they were charged $250, pass or fail.

They took the exam in November of 2011, and waited. In February, they finally got the good news — they were among the 33 percent who passed, though the state still had to certify the results in June, and the two were made full captains in July.

“I was very pleased to be able to promote Captain Phelps and Captain Jarvis,” said the chief. “Their efforts and success are truly something to be proud of. I have worked with them both for my entire career and I have the highest confidence in each of their abilities to do things right. Always.”

In reality, though, the two had been acting as captains for quite some time. Jarvis became a provisional captain in 2006; Phelps in 2009, both as shift commanders.

Next to the life- and property-saving services they provide, the captains love working with their fellow firefighters most.

“The camaraderie is my favorite part of the job,” said Phelps. “We live here together, and eat three meals a day together when we’re on duty. It’s like a family.”

“I miss that part of it, being off of shift work,” said Jarvis. “But now I get to work with all four groups.”

The department has four groups with six to seven firefighters each, who work literally around the clock. When a group shows up for duty, they don’t leave again for 24 hours, then have 24 off, and 24 on again, then get five days off.

Jarvis works a more standard shift, pulling four 10-hour shifts per week.

Even when they’re off-duty, they’re always on-call. When the need arises and their pagers go off, they respond, day or night, rain or shine.

When they’re first on-scene, said Phelps, they’ve got to make some quick decisions.

“Our first concern is safety. First, we size up the fire and determine our manpower needs,” said Phelps.

If there’s a doubt, he said, they err on the side of caution.

“We’d rather have too many firefighters,” he said. “You can always send some home.” He said on-call firefighters can take 20 to 25 minutes to get from their homes to a fire. If he waits 15 to see if a fire worsens, those reinforcements won’t get there until 40 minutes after first responders.

With all those firefighters on-scene, the captains need to coordinate their efforts.

“As a firefighter, you go in, fight the fire and conduct search and rescue,” said Jarvis. “The first time you’re in charge, you’re overwhelmed by the amount of stuff an officer needs to do.”

“Is everyone accounted for?” Jarvis asks himself first. “What are our manpower needs? Is the fire getting better or worse? Do we need to contact utility companies (for shut-off of gas or electric service)? Can we get a hold of the building inspector? Do we need to swap out or feed the firefighters?”

Though they lead their crews, captains do it from within the pack.

“We’re commanders, but we’re also in the back line,” said Phelps.

“Sometimes, you have to get into it, and do some of the same duties as the other guys,” added Jarvis.

Jarvis joined the department as a call member in 1987 and earned full-time status in 1991; Phelps started as a firefighter with the Air National Guard in 1991, going full-time with the Guard in 1997, and pulling double-duty with the Greenfield Fire Department until he was hired as a full-time Greenfield firefighter in 1999.

Both remember a January 1996 fire that claimed World Eye Bookshop’s former Federal Street store.

“We had four guys working the fire (before reinforcements came), and three people were stuck on the top floor,” recalled Jarvis. “We had to get them out with the old 1979 ladder truck. I remember standing my coat up outside when I went to get some food afterward. It was frozen solid; I didn’t want it to thaw out inside.”

“On my first day (working in Greenfield), I was on Group 1, and we had eight calls,” remembered Phelps. “There was a fully involved car fire on I-91, some medical calls, and a car accident. The guys told me not to get used to it, that it was usually slower.”

Things have picked up considerably since Phelps joined the department.

“Now, eight calls is an average day.”

“Back in 1991, we had 300 to 400 calls per year,” added Jarvis. “Now, we go to 2,500 per year.”

He said the firefighters’ scope of duty has greatly expanded since then. Now, he said, they respond to more medical calls, and also go out to hazardous material calls on a regular basis. Often, they are called out due to carbon monoxide alarms, which Jarvis said most people didn’t own until they became required by state law in 2006.

Though he’s learned a lot by studying for the Civil Service exam, and was trained by the Guard to fight fires, Phelps said he learned a lot his very first year with Greenfield.

“I was working with guys that were 25-year-plus veteran firefighters,” he said. “I still think back to that training to this day. They taught me how to act at a fire, and what to do.”

Since then, most of those firefighters have retired. Phelps said there are a select few on the force with 25 years of experience now.

“I look back, and realize all of a sudden that I’m one of the top guys,” he reflected.

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