After 50 years, Phil McGouldrick, the Cape Elizabeth fire chief – and former South Portland fire chief – is retiring. Sort of.

Though he is vacating the Cape fire department’s only full-time, paid position, McGouldrick, 65, who has lived in South Portland all his life, will be returning to his roots.

Along with mentoring and traveling, McGouldrick plans to spend his retirement with South Portland’s Engine 6 call company.

“They’ve already got a seat in the truck for me,” he said.

Chief in Cape Elizabeth since 1992, McGouldrick lives in South Portland with his wife, Carole. His last day will be Jan. 18. The process for hiring a new chief to manage the department of 70 firefighters has not yet begun. According to Town Manager Mike McGovern, “it will be a challenge to replace him.”

Though continuing to work is hardly a retirement, it’s not surprising McGouldrick can’t quite bring himself to leave. The son of a South Portland firefighter, McGouldrick was hopping on trucks before he was allowed and started pulling pranks in the fire station soon after, from rigging sirens to go off as soon as the late watchman lay down his head to sleep to filling a hose full of air and unleashing it on his unsuspecting colleagues.

“Somebody was always doing something,” he said of his early days in the fire station, which is why he can’t come down too hard on the new generation for the stunts they pull.

“You chew them out,” he said, “but the minute they leave the room, you’re laughing about it.”

But it’s not all fun and games in the fire station. They play hard because they work hard. That’s what makes it a family.

“Your life depends on the person next to you. People don’t understand that,” he said.

And that family isn’t just the firefighters in the same town or even the same state – it’s the service as a whole. That’s why, he said, funerals for firefighters are so well attended.

“Everybody can relate to those last minutes. We’ve been there,” he said.

McGouldrick can remember one of his closest calls. He was fighting a fire at a hamburger joint in Cash Corner.

“I didn’t know there was a cellar,” he said, but he soon found

out when the floor dropped from underneath him. As he started sliding down into the fire below him, he threw his ax into the wall. After losing his boot and his helmet, he managed to swing his body over the ax and outside the building.

“It would have been all over,” he said.

McGouldrick has many more of the same stories – being lost in burning buildings, running out of air, getting out at the last minute – but that’s never kept him away from the heat. In fact, McGouldrick’s always been running toward it.

“I always wanted to be where the action was,” said McGouldrick, who had a reputation for randomly showing up at fires all across the region. In the mid-70s, he even regularly took trips to the Bronx in New York to get more intensive training.

“We would ride until we were so tired, our eyes weren’t open any more – fire after fire after fire,” he said. “It was a wild, crazy place.”

But McGouldrick wasn’t just learning from experience. He was a scholar, too.

“I was always reading and studying,” said McGouldrick, who has a

bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Southern Maine and an associate’s degree in fire science from Southern Maine Community College.

Burying his head in books paid off when, at just 30 years old, McGouldrick became the South Portland fire chief.

“All fire chiefs back then were in their 50s or 60s – all the white-haired guys,” he said. Not only were many of McGouldrick’s employees younger than he was, but also one of them – the deputy chief at the time – was his father.

Out of McGouldrick’s own six children, one has followed in his footsteps. His son, Philip Jr., is a lieutenant with the Portland Fire Department. He hopes to see one of his 15 grandchildren carry on the family tradition, as well.

For now, McGouldrick is looking forward to attending his grandkids’ athletic events. A mentor and basketball coach for children at Long Creek Youth Center, McGouldrick hopes to take the basketball official’s exam, so he can referee games, as well. The self-proclaimed “gym rat” is also on a team of his own – one that traveled to the Senior Olympics in Louisville, Ky., last year.

Though McGouldrick reached the highest rank in the fire department early in life, he never stopped trying to be a better firefighter – the reason he’s received the accolades he has, from being named Maine’s first Fire Chief of the Year in 1992 to being chosen to serve as the president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

From taking helicopter rides over Malibu fires to attending the funerals of the firefighters who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, McGouldrick has made friends in fire service throughout the country. One of his first plans for retirement is to go back and see many of them.

“It’s been a phenomenal experience,” he said of his career. “I still enjoy it just as much as I did the first day.”

No matter where he is, McGouldrick’s legacy in southern Maine is lasting. According to South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, who was originally hired by McGouldrick, he’s the reason many local firefighters are in the business today.

“He’s everything that’s good about the fire service,” said Guimond, who’s thrilled to have the former chief back on Engine 6. “We’re going to bring him home.”

Cape fire chief returning to roots

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