You might think that a guy who’s made a career as a firefighter, with a retirement career as a balloon chaser, would be kind of a wild man, but Tom Ritland is soft-spoken and quiet. Perhaps after a lifetime of springing suddenly to full alert, wearing, and carrying at least 60 pounds of equipment into life-threatening situations, and dealing with constantly changing catastrophes, he feels no need to swagger. Here’s a man who has seen a lot of disasters, and done more than his fair share to remedy them. He knows the value of forethought. He prefers prevention to having to fix problems, and he knows that the best explanation is no good if the recipient doesn’t get it. He punctuates his discourse with, “Does that make sense?”
It certainly makes sense to have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms if the alternative is losing your house or your life. “Prevention is as important as fighting fires,” notes Tom. Though recently retired from 24 years with the Hartford Fire Department, he is now on call with his old department. He works with Quechee’s two fire trucks, which live in a modest garage near the library.
Firefighters aim to save people first, then property if possible. Tom is clearly proud of the systems and equipment he has available, and of the team he’s been a part of for so long. “If there’s a confirmed fire” – smoke is coming out of the house – “dispatch automatically calls Lebanon and Hanover,” he says. It takes seven minutes for a fire truck to get to Quechee from White River Junction, Vermont, an interval made possible in part by the ability of emergency vehicles to flip traffic lights to expedite passage.
While waiting for help, the first truck to arrive tries to contain the fire if it’s too big to control. Each engine carries 1000 gallons of water, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the “small” handheld hoses carried into a house put out about 180 gallons per minute. So that four tons of water – the 1000 gallons – only lasts about five-and-a-half minutes. In a roaring, fully involved fire, that water might be used to spray down nearby buildings to keep the fire from spreading.
Firefighter safety is the paramount concern. Though the fire makes the scene inherently chaotic, the crews have a carefully practiced command and control system that includes identification tags on snap clips for each firefighter. When heading into a burning house each firefighter clips a tag in a designated spot, so there’s no question about how many and who are in those flames. Even with systems and drills, about 100 firefighters die in the course of duty each year in the U.S., says Tom.
Physical fitness is also a safety matter. In the ’90s, Tom explains, studies found that 50 percent of firefighter fatalities were cardiac emergencies from stress and overexertion. Now each duty crew has a daily cardio workout at the station. Another primary source of injuries and deaths is vehicle accidents; a demanding driver-training program aims to reduce this problem.
Tom talks calmly about his experiences. When asked about being scared, he acknowledges that he’s been in many situations that are inherently scary. “But we train a lot,” he says.
The apple falls near the tree
Tom’s daughter, Karen, is a hotshot firefighter in Oregon, work she has also pursued in Idaho. Although – or perhaps because – he worked at wildland firefighting years ago, Tom hopes that Karen will move on to something else. It’s highly seasonal work, and too strenuous for all except the young. As the most highly trained, elite firefighters in the country, hotshots are sent to the most challenging terrain, often remote and with difficult access.
Chasing the rainbow (hot air balloon)
How could you live in Quechee and not be familiar with hot air balloons? Tom has gotten himself in deeper than most, helping his son, Chris, who has run a balloon-ride business, Quechee Balloon Rides, for about a decade. Tom drives the chase car, pursuing the balloon by road to help at the landing and take the people and equipment home. The “car” is actually a large pickup truck equipped with a lift for the basket, which weighs about 300 pounds at the end of a ride. “It’s more like 400 or 500 when it’s full of fuel,” explains Tom. The balloon can carry about 1800 pounds; the overhead (Chris the pilot, the basket, and equipment) runs about 1000 pounds, leaving room for four passengers. With characteristic understatement, Tom adds, “You don’t want to run out of fuel.”
Balloonists try to come down in fields – trees are the natural enemies of balloons, he says, though “power lines are the number one concern.” Aloft, the balloon is a cross between reassuringly powerful and astonishingly peaceful. Since the air moves the balloon there is little sensation of the wind. But on landing, residual buoyancy and the energy of descent can create some bumpy and exciting moments. Do NOT choose this time to lighten the basket by jumping out! Though dependent on invisible air currents for his travels, Chris has so much familiarity with the area and experience with the balloon that he can usually make good landings near a road. With his firefighter’s knowledge of area roads, Tom finds his way to meet the descending balloon.
Tom’s firefighter training in flexibility – you never know when that siren will sound – is useful to him as a balloon chaser, since balloonists may have to cancel for last minute weather conditions. Rain, strong wind, or too much fog may forbid flying. Too much heat, which diminishes the temperature contrast that lifts the balloon, may force cancelation or limit the number of passengers.
Retirement has given the chance for Tom and his wife, Diane, a retired nurse from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, to travel. They went about as far as they could go with a trip to glaciers in New Zealand and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He also continues to volunteer his time on the ski patrol at Quechee. He’s earned the right to enjoy life, which includes a big dose of staying in Quechee, ready to move against fires, or in pursuit of balloons. He’s good at it, and he likes it, so it just makes sense.