YARMOUTH – After 55 years of firefighting, you’d think Byron “Pat” Fairbanks would have lots of stories to tell about rescuing people from the greedy clutches of death and destruction.

It turns out that the plain-spoken fire chief, who retires Friday, hasn’t been keeping track.

If he had, his tally of accomplishments would be long. After all, Fairbanks started as a volunteer firefighter in high school, spent 20 years with the Portland Fire Department and is credited with uniting Yarmouth’s once-contentious fire and rescue crews as the town’s first full-time fire chief.

But by his count, every life lost on his watch erased the merit of dozens of lives saved, even when little could have been done to change the outcome. The worst was the murder of 12-year-old Douglas Austin in 1981. The boy and his parents were stabbed to death by his uncle, John Condon, who then set the house on Seaborne Drive on fire.

Fairbanks found the boy’s body in the smoky darkness.

“That’s what erases a lot of the good stuff,” Fairbanks said last week. “Kids in particular. A young child who hadn’t lived, experienced life. It’s tough to brush that off, but you have to keep going. I didn’t break down that night. You just don’t forget it.”

For Fairbanks, 69, being a firefighter has been about helping people, not being a hero. He embraced change in a profession that has evolved greatly through the years. He talks about firefighting as a team effort and recalls highlights of his career in broad strokes.

“I’ve worked with a lot of good people,” Fairbanks said. “I’ve been a leader of a pack of dogs.”

Through the years, Fairbanks’ honesty and professionalism have endeared him to colleagues and community members alike.

Earlier this month, the Town Council passed a resolution “on behalf of the Yarmouth community present, past and future” offering “great gratitude and fondest respect for his years of service and the legacy of his outstanding body of work over five decades of caring and making a difference.”

The council recognized Fairbanks for his “unparalleled commitment to the safety and well being of the citizens, emergency responders and victims of fire, accident, unsafe conditions, disaster, severe weather or medical emergency.” It also noted his “wisdom, humility, patience, dedication and hard work” in pulling together a once-divided department.

Town Manager Nat Tupper witnessed the chief’s effort to unite the fire and rescue divisions into a high-functioning, professional organization.

“He brought maturity to the job and he’s been a steady hand on the helm,” Tupper said. “He’s not pushy, but he’s principled and straightforward. He’s respected and respectful of everyone.”

Tom Estabrook, facilities manager at Estabrook’s garden centers, has been an on-call firefighter in Yarmouth since 1970. He’s one of four deputy chiefs in the department, including Mike Robitaille, who will replace Fairbanks as acting chief.

Estabrook credits Fairbanks with sharing the expertise he developed as a Portland firefighter and encouraging local high school students to join the squad as he did when he was a teenager.

“He’s always been a team guy,” Estabrook said. “He’s a great mentor who’s family- and community-oriented. And he’s trustworthy. You can always take him at his word.”

AN EARLY START

Fairbanks became a volunteer firefighter in Cumberland when he was a freshman at Greely High School. He sort of fell into it — his father and brother were fellow volunteers and his boss at Chase’s Greenhouse, where he had a part-time job, was the chief. Fairbanks was one of five volunteers from Greely’s class of 1961.

“They let us do a lot of stuff back then that they shouldn’t have,” Fairbanks recalled. “We drove the trucks. We ran into burning buildings. Today, we don’t let our young volunteers do any of that. They’re stuck doing grunt work.”

A state champion marksman, Fairbanks joined the Army National Guard after graduation, worked at local sporting goods stores and was an on-call firefighter in Falmouth. In 1966, he became a full-time firefighter in Portland, encouraged by his wife-to-be, Patricia, whose father and brother were firefighters in South Portland.

Fairbanks was on the scene in 1969 when the Grand Trunk Railroad wharves on Portland’s eastern waterfront went up in flames. He watched in amazement in the mid-1970s, when three fellow firefighters were electrocuted but survived when a ladder truck hit a utility wire. He helped to establish the crash station at the Portland International Jetport and rose to the rank of lieutenant before retiring for the first time in 1987.

After that, he ran a construction company for several years, then worked as a custodian for the Yarmouth School Department. And he continued working as an on-call firefighter in Yarmouth, where he and his wife built a house on Cousins Island in 1967 and raised two children.

He became part-time chief in 1996 and full-time paid chief in 2000. In addition to overseeing the merger of the fire and rescue divisions, Fairbanks is proud to have promoted the use of compressed-air foam systems that improved firefighting across the state.

Today, Yarmouth Fire-Rescue includes 20 per-diem firefighters and paramedics and 60 volunteers who are paid when called. His son, Byron, is a lieutenant in the Brunswick Fire Department and works per diem in Yarmouth.

A CHANGING FIELD

Fire and rescue operations have changed dramatically in recent decades, according to Fairbanks.

While improved building codes, fire alarms and smoke detectors have reduced fires greatly and saved lives, chemicals, technology and global terrorism have increased other threats to public safety.

Of the 1,458 calls that Yarmouth fire and rescue personnel answered last year, only 25 percent were fire calls. The rest ranged from car accidents to heart attacks.

“Now, we get called when people don’t know what else to do,” Fairbanks said.

As Fairbanks takes a bow in Yarmouth, he’s still a volunteer firefighter in Rangeley, where he and his wife have a camp.

“I kind of feel compelled to help when I’m there,” he said. “I don’t know how long I’ll keep that up.”

Pat and Patty Fairbanks moved their primary residence to Pownal a few years ago, after selling their home on Cousins Island because the taxes were too high, he said.

He has a greenhouse and a garden that will take up some of his free time, along with six grandchildren and a love of hunting that promises to get him out in the woods often. His wife retired Friday from her 25-year job as a bus driver and custodian in the Yarmouth schools, so they’ll spend a lot more time together, too.

“We’re going to do whatever we want to do,” he said.

And maybe he’ll be able to go to bed without wondering if his crew will be called out in the middle of the night to fight a fire or pull a driver from a car wreck.

After all these years, it’s about time.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]