When a hurricane nears U.S. shores, those in its path start preparing. They hunker down or evacuate their homes, and everyone else gets busy sending thoughts and prayers to loved ones in the cross hairs.
But by that point, Raymond R. Phillips is already geared up and heading straight toward the impending devastation.
The Keene fire lieutenant is part of a Massachusetts-based task force that deploys to natural and man-made disasters for search and rescue efforts.
Phillips, 49, always felt a gentle tug toward firefighting, but he said it seemed out of reach. After working in construction for more than a decade, however, someone convinced him to take a class and try it out.
From that point on, he’s dived headfirst into fire and rescue and loved every minute of it.
“I’m very, very fortunate with the way that my career has worked out,” he said. “... The passion that I have for this — I’ve been 16 years here, and I still have the passion like I just walked in the door.”
Ray to the rescue
As soon as he became a firefighter, Phillips said he knew he wanted to join Massachusetts Task Force 1.
“I’ve always been interested in the technical rescue side of the fire service,” Phillips said. “... One of my big goals was to get on the team. I was probably two years into (firefighting) and took one of my first classes for building collapse. Once I took that, I knew what my focus was.”
The urban search and rescue team is one of 28 task forces contracted under the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to disasters across the country. Teams comprise police, fire and medical personnel, as well as civilians.
The Massachusetts task force enlists about 150 people, according to its website, and 62 people deploy in a team. While many of the other task forces are based in major metropolises, the Massachusetts team is unique in that it pulls from departments across New England.
Phillips joined the team as a rescue specialist five years ago, after about seven years spent obtaining all the necessary certifications. He said he competed for his slot against people from much larger departments, such as Burlington, Vt., and Boston.
“It’s a huge honor just to get on the team and be able to work with these people,” he said.
Dennis Macedo works with Phillips on the task force and said the team requires dedication and spirit. Macedo retired from the New Bedford (Mass.) Fire Department a year ago, but opted to stick with the task force, where’s he’s worked for 25 years.
“It takes a certain person to be there because it’s a lot of volunteer time,” Macedo said.
Team members can train for hundreds of hours in a year, he explained, and none of that time is compensated. Task forces are paid only when they are deployed by FEMA, he said.
“He would give you the shirt off his back if he could to help you. That’s pretty much the fire service in general,” Macedo said of Phillips. “… They’re always constantly looking to better themselves.”
When the task force receives a call to action, Phillips said it’s typically in the middle of the night, and he immediately must drive more than two hours to the headquarters in Beverly, Mass.
After medical checkups, members of Massachusetts Task Force 1 drive with all their equipment to wherever they’ve been assigned, usually on the other side of the country.
Most recently, the team was called to respond to the Carolinas last month before Hurricane Florence made landfall, Phillips said. The task force typically spends about 10 days on deployment, but the team is on assignment until the job is done.
He described rivers that roared through neighborhoods, and scrolled through photos on his phone of unbelievable storm damage. In one picture, he pointed to a large wheelchair access ramp that was clearly meant to be attached to a house — but instead just floated in the middle of this new body of water.
“I guess we don’t really pay attention to the risk as much because we’re focused, and we’re well-trained,” he said, adding that he usually realizes the gravity of some of the “hairy” situations after he gets home.
As the team starts its rescue operations, it encounters difficult situations and people dealing with an impossible set of emotions, Phillips said. He pointed out that these are usually people who either decided not to leave their homes in the face of a hurricane or weren’t able to.
More often than not, his team comes to the aid of residents who refused to evacuate because they had pets they didn’t want to leave behind. Sometimes, there are family members with disabilities, or people with mental health diagnoses.
“The people, you can just see it in their face when you get there. They’re just overwhelmed,” he said. “… I don’t know how many of these people just gave me a big hug and said, ‘Thank you.’ No need to thank us, that’s what we’re here for; that’s why we’re here.”
While deployed, the task force typically doesn’t get much time to rest and is faced with harrowing circumstances. But Phillips said everyone knows they’re there to make the situation better, and the team tends to keep itself busy.
“We don’t like sitting still,” he said. “We know what’s going on all around us, so if we can’t be someplace helping somebody, we’re, I don’t know, I guess very anxious to get out and help.”
Dream into reality
Phillips said he was never very good at sitting still.
“I enjoyed using my hands. I did well in construction trades and woodworking and machine shop and sewing,” he said. “I got an A in sewing.”
Born in Swanzey and raised in the region, Phillips grew up with three brothers: one younger, a fraternal twin and one older.
The boys grew up next door to their grandfather, Robert Tedford, who Phillips said was a huge role model.
“I think my fire service career I would have to put back on him, because he owned an auto body shop, and he always helped people,” Phillips said. “Somebody could come in and not have any money but needed a car fixed, and he would fix it for nothing.”
Phillips and his brothers spent their summers in their grandfather’s shop, working on cars to stay out of trouble, he said.
Tedford died last year at 92, Phillips said, a few months after his father, Bruce Phillips, died.
After graduating from Keene High School, Phillips went into construction, working for Masiello Real Estate’s building division for 10 years. When that closed down, he opened his own business, which he said was successful.
But then a captain at the fire department, who worked with Phillips part time, pitched the idea of him becoming a firefighter — an idea Phillips had toyed with but never thought he could seriously pursue.
He admired firefighters as a kid, he said, like most children do. He always felt a pull in his heart, though, something urging him to try it when his insecurities told him it could never work.
At the advice of that fire captain, he took a class and realized his construction background gave him an advantage in understanding some of what was being taught.
He immediately knew it was his calling and began working toward making it a career. Soon after starting as a full-time firefighter, he closed his business.
That was nearly 16 years ago, and Phillips said it’s still hard to believe sometimes.
“There’s days where I walk through the station and pinch myself,” he said. “I’m a firefighter. I have the best job in the world.”
At an age when some people might be concerned about mid-life crises or finding a purpose, Phillips said he feels incredibly content with where his career has taken him. He’s set goals for himself and accomplished them, but he hasn’t stopped there. From day one, he’s sought learning opportunities, which he said is critical to success.
“Find that one thing in your career that you like — like mine was the rescue stuff — be proficient at everything, but get excellent at that,” he added.
And he’s still training, too. He takes his last class Tuesday to get certified as a rescue swimmer with the task force.
Sometimes he catches himself wishing he had joined the fire service when he was younger, but he also acknowledges the benefits of starting later in life.
“I think there was a lot of life lessons that I had already learned that helps a lot being here and dealing with death, destruction, loss,” he said.
Phillips hopes his story is evidence that chasing lifelong dreams is possible, regardless of age. He teaches fire training courses now and often encounters people who weren’t sure the career was attainable, much like he was.
“I love getting people in the fire service that didn’t think it was possible, that they think it’s above where they can reach,” Phillips said. “It’s never. Your dreams are always there. You just got to put a little extra effort sometimes.”