BUCKSPORT — About 39 years ago, a new high school graduate stopped his vehicle on a roadside to help the Fire Department put out a grass fire.
“One of the guys said something about joining and I did, and that’s the rest of the story,” said Fire Chief Craig Bowden. “I had the opportunity less than three years later to take a full-time position and I did so and enjoyed it immensely.”
Bowden has announced his retirement as chief effective Tuesday, April 9. The 58-year-old will remain on staff as a call (part-time) firefighter/certified EMT.
“I’ve been planning on this for a few years,” Bowden said. “Eighteen years as chief — that’s long enough.”
Fire chiefs average 5 to 10 years before retiring or moving on to do other work, Bowden said.
“I don’t want anything full time,” he said. “I want to spend a little bit more time with the grandchildren and do a little bit more traveling.”
Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard said she hopes to meet this week with the Fire/EMS Department to discuss the opening.
“Chief Bowden has been the chief for 18 years and was the assistant chief nine years before that, and was a department member before that,” Lessard said. “This transition is going to be a significant change and we need to evaluate the best way to move forward.”
Whoever takes the post will have big boots to fill.
Under Bowden’s leadership, the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating for insuring properties in Bucksport improved from a 5 to a 3. ISO ratings affect how much property owners pay for insurance.
“We’re one of the best rated communities — we’re one of 10 communities in Maine with a 3,” Bowden said.
The department has more than doubled its revenue from $200,000 to $450,000 — mostly from EMS services.
Bucksport was the eighth community in Maine to be recognized by the Maine Department of Labor for quality of training and safety issues. Bowden worked with other Bucksport departments on those issues in addition to the fire department.
Then there’s the grant money.
“As chief, I got pretty close to $1.5 million in grants — for everything from office supplies to firefighting equipment to a fire truck,” Bowden said.
“We got a grant for street signage and smoke detectors for every house in Bucksport and Verona Island,” Bowden said.
A grant for staffing took the department from a crew of five full-time employees to seven.
“Keeping an active roster is always a challenge for most towns,” Bowden said.
Bucksport is no different.
“Most of the people who are on our department are involved in other community activities,” Bowden said. “Time concerns and constraints for members of the call department are always an issue.”
Aging is another issue.
“Quite a few of our members are getting up there and not able to do interior fire attacks but are still active,” Bowden said. At a recent meeting, there were seven members of the department who had joined in the early ’80s. The group had a combined 250 years of experience.”
“It’s good for the new guys to see the camaraderie and the experience,” Bowden said. “We always maintained a good, solid core group. I’m hoping we leave it in good hands for future administration to step in and take the reins and keep everything in a positive direction.”
Bowden is just one of seven family members in the department.
If you do the math, the department has 35 members, so the Bowden family comprises about 20 percent.
The chief’s two older brothers, Stephen and Mark, joined the department in 1987, seven years after Bowden joined.
Three nephews are on the department: Jamie, Shane and Trevor. Shane is also a full-time firefighter/EMT for the town of Dedham.
Bowden’s son, Jared, is also a full-time firefighter/paramedic with the city of Bangor.
The Bowden women are “heavily involved” with the auxiliary, he said.
“I didn’t know what I was starting when I joined,” the Bucksport native said. “I think it’s worked out well for the family and it’s worked out well for the community.”
“We’ve all been involved in Little League and youth soccer and Boy Scouts and other town committees. Hopefully, we’ve had a positive impact on more than just the fire service.”
In addition to call firefighting/EMT work, Bowden will spend more time in his woodshop.
He and wife Corinne have two grandchildren. Spending more time with them is another plan.
Advice for his replacement?
“I have always tried to instill upon the crew that we work for the citizens and we’ve always maintained a good looking facility and kept the equipment they bought us clean and spotless,” he said.
“When we go on calls, we treat everybody with the respect we want to be treated with,” Bowden said. “We work with the community to show them that we are concerned about the tax dollars and provide a quality service at an affordable price.”
“I’ve always tried to impress on my crew to get all the training and education they can,” he said.