LYNN — The fire dispatcher, who takes the call when your house is on fire and directs firefighters to the scene, is never seen by the public, but holds a key job.
“He’s the man behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz,” said Fire Chief James McDonald. “They experience the same tension we do, between the phone callers and dispatching the apparatus, they are under lots of stress.”
One person who has proved his worth under those circumstances has retired from the department after 25 years.
Richard Cutts, 65, fielded his last call Friday as fire alarm supervisor at the dispatch center on Baldwin Street.
While he worked as a hotel manager in his early 20s, his ambition was to join the Fire Department. He took the civil service exam and began his second career as a fire alarm operator in 1993.
“I grew with Joseph Scanlon III, the son of a Lynn fire chief, and I had always been interested in the fire service,” he said. “Growing up with Joey and learning about the fire department made it something I always wanted to do.”
Still, Cutts never wanted to be a firefighter, he said, because he lacked the physical ability.
“But I was fascinated by the tactics used to extinguish fires,” he said. “The job of fire alarm operator is not quite as physical as a firefighter.”
The alarm operator takes the original call when there’s a fire and determines how much help is needed from the fire station, gets help from other communities if necessary, and calls off-duty firefighters back to work.
“People in this role act as the team manager, trying to make sure all the pieces fit together,” he said. “We call ourselves the thin gold line, the intermediary between the public and the firefighters and police on the street.”
The most stressful part of the job, he said, is talking to people who report a fire.
“For us, it’s routine, but for the person calling in it’s not,” he said. “It’s probably the worst moment in their lives.”
If there’s one suggestion for anyone who calls 911 to report a fire, he said be specific about the address and where the fire started.
“People think that if they call from a cell phone, we know where they are, we don’t,” he said. “It’s very important to tell us your address and the location of the fire. If there’s a fire at Walmart, it’s helpful to know what aisle it’s in since it’s such a big store, or what unit it is if it’s in an apartment building.”
McDonald praised Cutts as one of the most knowledgeable people in directing firefighting.
“It wasn’t just a job for him, it was a career and his lifestyle,” he said. “There isn’t much he doesn’t know about the fire service and what we go through and that helps. He brings that knowledge to the job and he has the feel of what we need to know, when we need to know it, and what we’re going through out there.”
But don’t ask Cutts to recall some of the more infamous fires he’s been involved with in more than two decades.
“I don’t remember lots of the bad fires,” he said. “There are people in this job that do, and they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Former Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy said despite how busy Cutts was during a fire, he always gave her a heads-up.
“Even while he was juggling everything, he always kept me in the loop so I could get down to the fire scene and make sure everyone was OK,” she said. “He was one of the best we had at dispatch. I wish him well.”