Harmony Fire Chief Waterman set to retire, after 45 years of service in northern RI

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Harmony Fire Chief Richard Waterman will retire in June, after 45 years as a fireman. NRI NOW photo by Dick Martin

GLOCESTER – For the last 45 years, Harmony Fire Chief Richard Waterman has been a fireman. On Sunday, June 30, he will officially walk out the door of the Harmony fire station for the last time as the department’s chief, and head out for new adventures.

“When people ask me about different jobs, for me, this is the absolute best job anybody could ever have,” Waterman said. “You get to help everybody in the community when they absolutely are having one of their worst days.”

From the start, fire fighting was in Waterman’s blood. Growing up, his father and older siblings were volunteers for the Smithfield Fire Department.

“When the whistle blew, they went,” he recalled. “My brothers, Jim and John, my dad, were all members of the department.”

Waterman enrolled in the Hall Institute after graduating from Smithfield High School in 1978 and earned a certificate in design engineering, but it seems that was not his calling. After working for a brief time at FM Global, he and his brother Jim both applied and were hired as full-time firefighters in 1983 by the Smithfield Fire Department. Waterman filled that role for 30 years, rising to the rank of captain and filling the position of director of training before retiring and accepting a position with Harmony in 2013. Four years later, he was appointed chief, following the retirement of former Chief Stuart Pearson.

In his tenure as a fireman, Waterman notes he has seen it all, answering the call for fires, rescues, and all types of emergencies when the whistle blows.

That includes one tragic incident where a mother handed him a dead child, asking for help.

“A three-year-old pulled a TV onto his head and basically died in his mother’s bedroom,” Waterman recalled. “It was the middle of winter, and she met us in the driveway with her dead child, howling ‘Can someone please help me?’ She handed the child off to me. That was by far the worst call I have ever had to deal with.”

There have been good moments also, however, including taking over as Harmony’s chief. Although he enjoyed his years in Smithfield, he said, Harmony has been special.

“It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what the fire service and EMS service could be like, if we could take all of the BS out of it,” Waterman said. “If you allow your members to do their job, to do what they do best, you don’t have to micromanage them.”

Apparently, he has done just that. EMS Capt. Justin Lema said Waterman has clearly understood that success in, “an endeavor of this grand scale,” may only be achieved by continuing to motivate and appreciate the highly motivated personnel who serve under his command.

“He has achieved his objectives as a chief by putting faith in the leadership of his command staff and faith in the knowledge and experience of those in under their command,” said Lema. “His door was always open, and he remained in close contact with his personnel. He has shown respect for all members and employees of the Harmony Fire Department and shares that affection for the members of the community he serves. Like any fire department, the mission of the Harmony Fire Department is not greater than the impact of one person; however, the mission of the department continues forward strengthened by the countless contributions and tireless efforts of people like Chief Richard Waterman.”

Lema noted that under his leadership as fire chief, Waterman has directed response from fire apparatus for fire suppression and during a plethora of other emergencies including flooded basements, brush fires, motor vehicle collisions, water, carbon monoxide and electrical emergencies, where trained and experienced fire fighters are expected to respond expeditiously and safely. He led the department during the COVID-19 public health crisis managing daily directives from the Rhode Island Department of Health and, along with other departments and the EMA, provided support to local vaccination clinics. He has secured grants and funding for equipment including SCBAs, portable radios, ballistic armor, pediatric emergency medical services care and, most recently, for an engine tanker and cardiac monitor. 

Lema added that the chief has been a tireless advocate for the advancement of Emergency Medical Services in Harmony, licensing two transporting ambulances at the paramedic level, and facilitating the hiring of highly educated and trained medical professionals to provide round-the-clock EMS coverage, encouraging the highest level of prehospital care possible.  

Waterman said that one of the best things about the Harmony department is sitting down with members at breakfast, or in his office, and simply having a conversation. He said all contribute to the department’s success in one way or another.

“When you come to a volunteer department, the geographics change,” said Waterman. “But the people change also. The people who are members of this department, the majority of them, don’t even live in this town. Yet, they come here, they do everything they possibly can to make the department better, but their primary thing is they come in here because they want to help the people of this community. I can’t thank them enough. I truly can’t.”

Volunteers have included a range of people, from simple volunteers including trades people, farmers and college students, to doctors, nurses and even a cardiac doctor who spent time on rescue calls because he wanted to see what went on before patients arrived at the hospital. One of the current EMS personnel, Nikita Maryanov, is a pre-med student studying to become a doctor. Waterman praised him as being one of the most dedicated members of the department, despite his study load and other obligations.

Lema provides exceptional training, he added, including creating a special life-like mannequin for trainees to practice on. Lema was named EMS Coordinator of the Year from the RI Department of Health Center for EMS last year.

“His training, by far, is some of the best training in Rhode Island,” said Waterman. “He is one of the most caring individuals you will ever meet. Those are the people who come to this department. The people in this district are very lucky.”

Going forward, however, is going to be challenging, he said, not just for Harmony, but for all fire and rescue departments.

“Recruiting and retention in volunteer departments throughout the country, not just in Rhode Island, is so depleting,” Waterman explained. “When we were kids, you wanted to be either a cop or a fireman. Kids nowadays want to be gamers or website designers. They don’t want to put in the time to be in the fire service.”

Looking down the road, he said the town needs to think about consolidating Glocester’s three fire departments and, possibly, hiring full-time personnel to address resident’s needs in the future. The only full-time staff now are per diem rescue personnel, and firefighters are strictly volunteer. When fires occur, they usually include personnel and equipment from surrounding towns to help answer the call.

At a recent Town Council meeting, Chepachet Fire Chief Dennis Huestis noted that volunteers and per diem personnel get experience and training locally, but often move on to full-time positions in other towns, where benefits and better pay are offered. Just as the town has a paid police department ready to help, Huetis said there should be a paid fire department for the same reason.

Waterman agrees.

“I’ve got people who want to be doctors, people who want to be nurses, people who want to be on paid departments,” Waterman said. “It’s amazing how many people we lose to paid departments.”

When Waterman walks out that door, he said the thing he will miss the most are the people he works with.

“The members of this department – that’s what I am going to miss,” the chief said. “The people here are just amazing.”

Instead of being behind the wheel of a fire truck, Waterman plans on driving a 45-foot RV starting this summer. He is off to visit friends around the country, as well as his daughter Seneca in North Carolina. He said his wife Lisa, who was also a member of the Smithfield Fire Department, has been trying to get him to retire for the last three years.

“My goal now, according to my wife, is to try to take it easy,” Waterman said with a laugh.

“His presence will be dearly missed, and we all would like to wish him the best of luck as he enjoys his retirement with his wife Lisa and his family,” said Lema.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I had the pleasure of being a Harmony district board member and for a time the board moderator during Chief Waterman’s tenure as Chief. Rick did a superlative job and has made the village of Harmony a better place through his leadership and service to the community. A big salute to you, Chief and enjoy a well earned and deserved retirement.
    David Laplante

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