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Ray Duckler: Clayton Higgins’s vision burns brightly today

  • Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, sits for a portrait at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, sits for a portrait at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, sits for a portrait at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, sits for a portrait at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Clayton Higgins (left) outside the Manor Station in Penacook in the 1970s. (Courtesy)

    Clayton Higgins (left) outside the Manor Station in Penacook in the 1970s. (Courtesy)

  • Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, holds a plaque he recieved during his tenure for helping to develop state standards at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, holds a plaque he recieved during his tenure for helping to develop state standards at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, sits for a portrait at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, sits for a portrait at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Clayton Higgins (left) outside the Manor Station in Penacook in the 1970s. (Courtesy)
  • Clayton Higgins, former Concord fire chief, holds a plaque he recieved during his tenure for helping to develop state standards at his home in Concord on Friday morning, May 9, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

On a cold, dark January morning 42 years ago, just days before his promotion to Concord fire chief, Clayton Higgins saw something that led to a way to better serve the community.

He watched his men pull three children and an adult from the second floor of a burning home on North State Street. Later, each would be declared dead at Concord Hospital.

Last week, with a wall of photos showing his seven grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren serving as a backdrop, Higgins said he

knew then that his department lacked what it needed to address all types of emergencies.

That’s why today’s fire departments, here, there and everywhere in New England, do more than merely put out fires and rescue cats from trees.

These men and women now save lives in other ways, too, thanks to Higgins. EMT training, ambulance service, fire codes – all can be traced back to Higgins and his reaction to that awful day.

“I said it to myself right there when I saw those children,” Higgins said. “I thought that if I ever have the opportunity again to care for someone with serious injuries, like those kids, we would be prepared.”

It’s not known if the four deaths could have been prevented had the Concord Fire Department incorporated better safety measures earlier.

What is clear, however, is that Higgins, 85, saw the need to change, to expand, to evolve, to grow. He retired from the department in 1979, but not before implementing his vision, and now he’s collaborating on a book about the history of the Concord Fire Department, its triumphs and tragedies.

Dan Andrus has been Concord’s chief for six years and a firefighter for 35 years total, which means he came through the door as Higgins was leaving. He’s been friends with Higgins for years and says the man is a leader and pioneer.

“He’s a jewel in our city,” Andrus said. “It’s an honor to know Chief Higgins. Most of what I do everyday is building on his foundation.”

Higgins is soft-spoken and wears wire-rimmed glasses, exuding a gentleness that belies someone whose father was a logger north of Hanover, and who spent much of his life eating smoke. He gestures with his right hand as though cutting his left arm and says a puff of smoke would emerge if he actually had a knife.

He says that as a part-timer earning $50 a week, he marveled at the guts he saw exhibited by his more experienced colleagues and wanted to join the team full time.

“I saw the firefighters going in a house fire and other people rushing out,” Higgins said. “I thought, ‘These guys are crazy. They’re going in and everyone else is coming out.’ I talked to them. I asked, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘It makes us feel good.’ ”

Eventually he ditched his job repairing Singer sewing machines and boxcars for Boston and Maine Railroad. He knew early on how far he wanted to go within the department, saying, “I wanted to be up front. I wanted to be first.”

So he worked his way up the ladder. He also helped create the city’s first ordinance to keep day-care centers safe.

“I saw a furnace in the middle of a basement, where kids 4 and 5 years old played,” Higgins said. “It got me thinking.”

Since then, he’s seen a lot. Like the time a crane cable snapped on the roof of a federally subsidized building on North Main Street, seven floors high. Two workers fell to the basement level, each floor collapsing ahead of them.

“One never walked again,” Higgins said. “One never worked again.”

He’s lost two men in the line of duty: Russell Robinson was 49 when he died from a heart attack while fighting an apartment fire on North State Street in 1973. Stephen Cotter was 38 when he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage after an early morning medical call in 1979.

Higgins says he went to Rundlett Junior High to tell Robinson’s son that his mother needed him at home, and he coordinated the effort to make sure Cotter’s wife received his retirement benefits.

But the fact that Cotter was even involved in a medical emergency of that nature was due to earlier efforts by Higgins.

Through experience, Higgins learned that the fire department needed to do more than it had been doing. It needed to treat the injured on the spot, to have the vehicles to rush them to the hospital, to be educated about administering medication, to provide the means and facilities to offer more skills.

It needed a man like Higgins, who shook up the system in the 1970s.

“We were the first department with 24/7 paramedics,” Andrus said.

When asked if he meant the first department in New Hampshire, Andrus said, “No, New England.”

The impetus for the changes can be traced to that frigid day in January 1972, at about 5 a.m. Higgins was due to take the oral exam for the chief’s slot four hours later when the call came in.

A newspaper account says three children, ages 6 to 8, died that day.

“We never determined the cause,” Higgins said. “I still feel it. We lacked the training to deal with it.”

Added Andrus, “We are who we are today because of Clayton’s foresight and leadership.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Clayton is my uncle and I just wanted to say this is a great article. Thank you! Cherié Moen

From the time I was 10 to about 12, I had a best buddy who was a nephew to Clayton Higgins. Living on The Heights (or 'Dark Plains', as they called it in the 19th century...get it?), we'd usually hit the Soucook River off route 106. On a good day, we'd pull out several rainbow trout & yellow perch. We had such a day on one occasion, and headed back home with a big heavy steel pail full of fish. To lighten our load, my buddy suggested we stop at his uncle's house on our way back home. I'd never been there prior, nor since, to memory. Clayton Higgins must've heard us coming, because he was standing on the back deck with a big smile on his face when we arrived. He dropped whatever he had been doing, and for the next hour or so, he showed us how to clean our catch. It's easy to recall Mrs Higgins being very tolerant of all the fish heads & guts smeared on her kitchen counter and sink, because my mother would've had a cat. But we left the Higgins house with several fresh fish filets, all individually wrapped. I remember saying to my buddy, "Your uncle is a cool guy.", to which he responded, "Yeah, he's always like that.".

Well, I have to admit where this is one excellent article, which is what can happen when the writer favors subject over self. Good job, Ray.

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