As one of Bedford’s longest-serving fire chiefs retired last week, David Grunes reminisced about the fulfilling foundation built early in his career.
“I would love for my last year to have been back as a firefighter. I think it’s the best job in the world,” said Grunes. “We see some horrible things, but the camaraderie, the relationships you build with your fellow firefighters, help get you through it. Everybody talks about being a family – it really is true.”
Grunes, who turned 55 earlier this year, announced early in July his plans to retire. Paul Sheehan, a retired Cambridge assistant fire chief, is serving as interim chief.
“The department has some exciting things coming up,” Grunes said. Besides the obvious – architects are designing options for a long-awaited fire station – a pending reorganization will result in additional captains.
“Now is the time to step away and let my successor come in,” Grunes said. “The department needs change.”
“I’ve really enjoyed working in Bedford. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to work,” Grunes said. “I’ve always felt supported by the community for everything that we’ve done. I really, really liked to help people and I’m glad to have done it in Bedford because I’ve seen the impact we have had collectively on the community.”
As a kid growing up in Bedford, Grunes said, “One of my earliest memories is of firefighters being part of the community.”
A 1986 Bedford High School graduate, Grunes joined the fire department in 1994. He noted that he filled an opening following the retirement of Lt. Don Mead, who died in June at the age of 91.
“I liked the adrenaline rush of being a firefighter,” said Grunes. He said it was former Chief Bob Palmeri – then a lieutenant – “who taught me to be a firefighter and an officer. He had this incredible work ethic and right to his retirement he trained with us and showed us how to be Bedford firefighters. That was the work ethic instilled in me.”
He also learned empathy. “I’ve seen friends, relatives, the community as a whole, and unfortunately, I’ve seen people suffering through personal tragedy. And I’ve seen the compassion our staff has, to understand what they are going through. We really do try to listen to people and try to provide some kind of comfort.”
Among “the things that stick with me is being able to talk to a family. We can’t make their day any better but at least we can provide comfort,” Grunes said. Newly hired paramedics show the same compassion that is “part of the culture.”
Grunes, who was appointed fire chief in 2008, reflected on the experiential changes inherent in advancing as an officer.
“Firefighters really see a lot, but their ability to laugh and joke the way they used to is really kind of scaled back, and some of that is the standards that we have today. Or it is different because I now am the boss.
“There are things I was able to enjoy as a new firefighter – including fires – that I was not able to enjoy as much anymore.” He reminisced about spending holidays on a shift at the station. “I loved doing the holidays up here when I was young and single – cooking the meals, sitting down and having a good holiday meal. Those are things I missed since I became chief.”
Grunes observed, “Sometimes it gets lost, because we are doing so much rescue, how important the firefighting side is. That’s the adrenaline part. That’s when we take risks and really show our professionalism, show our training, show how good the Bedford staff is, when we face something we don’t face every day.”
He added that “we used to be guaranteed a fire a year at the VA Hospital, but since they prohibited smoking, I can’t remember when they had a significant fire.
“Any opportunities I’ve had are because of the support of the community and the firefighters,” the retiring chief asserted. “I was fortunate to have strong staff around me,” the chief added, laughing as he described how he and Capt. Mark Sullivan “complement each other – he likes kissing babies while I’m collecting data.”
Grunes particularly wanted to thank former firefighter Joe Barilla, who was union president when the department transitioned into its self-contained advanced life-support structure.
“Having Joe as union president really allowed all the firefighters to be in lockstep. I needed the support of the firefighters and Joe advocated for it. The system has saved lives and truly makes a difference.”
One of the aspects of heading the department that Grunes said he most enjoyed was interacting with town boards and committees – most of the time to advocate for his annual or capital budget. “My job as chief was to convince them,” he said. “Everything I looked for in the budget was for us to do a better job serving.”
He smiled as he recalled parleying with the late Jim O’Neil of the Capital Expenditure Committee. “If I could get Jim’s vote, I knew I was doing something right.”
Citing the changing local demographics, Grunes pointed out that there are no Bedford residents on the current Civil Service list for paramedic or emergency medical technician positions in the department.
Planning for a new fire station has been on Grunes’ agenda for more than a decade. “It pulled my focus away,” he acknowledged. “Over the past year and a half, I was really tied up looking at the big picture. It pulled me away from day-to-day operations.”
Grunes said his immediate plans are “to take six months to breathe.” Then, since “I miss the action associated with the earlier part of my career, I’m going to look for something along those lines.” He noted that he is a licensed boat captain, and envisions “assisting stranded people.”