Municipal Spotlight: Gentile Retiring after 13 Years as Bellingham’s Fire Chief
Bellingham Fire Chief Steve Gentile will retire on June 14th after 37 years in public safety.
By KEN HAMWEY, Bulletin Staff Writer
Steve Gentile, who’ll be retiring on June 14 after 13 years as Bellingham’s Fire Chief, relied on resilience and adjusted quickly to the changes he faced.
COVID-19 greatly altered the way Gentile’s department performed its duties, and unfunded state mandates played a role in complicating the budgetary process. But, regardless of what curve balls came Gentile’s way, he stayed focused and was diligent in providing the town’s residents with dependable public safety.
The 61-year-old Gentile, who previously served as a lieutenant and deputy chief with the department, finishes after 37 years as a Bellingham firefighter.
“I’ve enjoyed working with dedicated personnel — professional firefighters who do an excellent job,’’ he emphasized. “And, I want to thank the citizens of the community for their support, especially at town meetings, where they always voted to give us the needed equipment. I speak for the entire department in thanking the public for dropping off food and desserts to show their appreciation.’’
Gentile labeled COVID-19 as a “brutal force’’ that wreaked havoc with the firefighting profession.
“We not only transported the sick, but we also had to deal with limited PPE (personal protective equipment),’’ Gentile said. “A big problem was keeping our firefighters healthy. About 10 members of our staff contracted the virus. When the vaccine was available, our department was at the senior center giving shots.’’
COVID-19 created changes but Gentile also had other concerns as chief.
“Since we no longer have call firefighters, there often were manpower shortages when we battled a fire,’’ he noted. “Years ago, we would call off-duty personnel to assist, but most of our firefighters now live out of town and some travel long distances to Bellingham.
“People have talked about regionalizing firefighting, and that’s what’s happening with mutual aid. If we’re dealing with a major fire in the north part of town, Medway will assist. If we’re at a fire in the south, we rely on Woonsocket for help. In the central part of town, Milford would assist. Mutual aid has become regionalized firefighting.’’
Two unfunded mandates have added new wrinkles.
“Nero’s Law now forces us to get training so we can treat and transport police dogs if they’re injured in the line of duty,’’ Gentile said. “Going forward, the cost of instruction will be a line item in the fire department’s budget.’’
Another new development is the lack of reimbursement fire departments face when using ambulance equipment during a transport to a hospital. “If we use an IV bag, medications or needles, for example, hospitals replaced what was used,’’ Gentile said. “Now, hospitals don’t replace what we use.’’
Gentile pointed to another situation that’s changed from when he began his career.
“Since I became chief, we rarely had the opportunity to hire a new firefighter from Bellingham,’’ he said. “Early on, many of our firefighters grew up here and were invested in the community. Now, all firefighters are paramedics and can move anywhere. We lost six to Franklin.’’
Gentile is optimistic that the turnover rate will diminish. “Our last contract is beneficial to firefighters,’’ he said, “and hopefully that will be a plus.’’ When Gentile became chief in 2012, his staff numbered 22. It’s now 28.
Besides thanking his staff and the community, Gentile admired the way the town backed his desire to upgrade equipment.
“We were able to replace two ambulances, three fire engines, we acquired two brush trucks and replaced a ladder truck with a tower truck,’’ he noted. “I appreciated the boards I dealt with and Town Administrator Denis Fraine, who was always tuned in to our needs.’’
Gentile also was pleased that he was able to garner grants to educate and make school children aware of fire safety. “I also got grants for educating senior citizens,’’ he said. “Our staff offers programs at the senior center to show them how to protect themselves.’’
Gentile’s favorite achievement during his 13 years as chief was the opening of the South Fire Station on a fulltime basis in 2013. His No. 1 regret was the closing of the north-end fire station five years ago due to age.
“I had to make some concessions, but getting the South Fire Station open full time was a win for the town,’’ he said. “The town was receptive to opening it, and $375,000 was spent to refurbish it. I believe that station and its personnel saved many lives. I regret that we couldn’t get the manpower needed to keep the north-end station open.’’
Gentile was born in Ipswich, moved to Bellingham when he was in Grade 3 and graduated from Bellingham High in 1980. He played baseball and hockey for the Blackhawks. A wing in hockey, he competed on the 1979-80 team that played at the old Boston Garden against Oliver Ames in a state quarterfinal game. He later returned to his alma mater and served as an assistant hockey coach for 10 years. BHS won two Tri Valley League titles during that stretch.
His college degrees include an associate’s and bachelor’s in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University and a masters in emergency services management, also from Columbia Southern. Gentile earned all three degrees online. The father of two daughters, he has two grandchildren.
While in high school, Gentile worked part-time for the town reading water meters and also for the parks department. In his mid-20s, he worked part-time as an assistant for animal control. In 1986 he became a call firefighter/EMT in Bellingham, then joined the Blackstone Fire Department fulltime as a firefighter/EMT. In 1994, Gentile returned to Bellingham in a fulltime role as a firefighter/EMT. He became a lieutenant in 2001 and advanced to Deputy Chief in 2010.
The Selectmen announced last month that Bill Miller, who’s been with the Hopkinton Fire Department for 27 years, will replace Gentile.
Still undecided what the future holds, Gentile plans to spend more time with his family. He’s had offers to work for the Mass. Fire Academy and the Mass. Emergency Management Agency.
Gentile revealed that, although he experienced positive times during his career, there were also some difficult situations. “It was always tough to see a family lose its house by fire,’’ he said. “Everything they worked hard for was lost, and all we could do is console them. Another difficult time occurred when I was a lieutenant. A role model of mine, Deputy Chief Steve Garon, passed away.’’
Steve Gentile knew he wanted to be a firefighter as a youth. He worked hard, learned the nuances of the job, and eventually became the chief.
His ability to adapt and adjust were the keys to a successful caree