Harold Paulsen stepped down as Pembroke’s fire chief, but he left the department in good hands 

  • Harold Paulsen, Pembroke’s recently retired fire chief, with his son Erik at his Pembroke home on Tuesday. MELISSA CURRAN / Monitor staff

  • Harold Paulsen, Pembroke’€™s recently retired fire chief, with his son, Erik, in his Pembroke home on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. MELISSA CURRAN—Monitor staff

  • Harold Paulsen, Pembroke’€™s recently retired fire chief, with his son Erik in his Pembroke home on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. MELISSA CURRAN—Monitor staff

  • Harold Paulsen, Pembroke’s recently retired fire chief, sits in his Pembroke living room on Tuesday. MELISSA CURRAN / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 3/3/2021 6:04:27 PM

The chatter in the background, muffled from a scanner’s hissing and beeping, was inaudible, yet still said a lot.

“No, I don’t go to the fires anymore,” explained Harold Paulsen, Pembroke’s recently retired fire chief. “Of course I have (a scanner), though. I spent too many years doing it not to have one.”

So he listens. He officially retired last New Year’s Eve, ending a 58-year career with the department, the last 21 as its chief. Paul Gagnon, Paulsen’s longtime deputy, took the controls two months ago.

Look at the past here, of Gagnon and Paulsen, and a classic American story, at least one of them, emerges. Gagnon joined the team in 1974, which means the chief and his deputy had put in 105 years combined by the time Paulsen chose to step down.

Gagnon was unavailable for comment, but his former boss is content knowing that a man of deep experience in firefighting and even deeper roots in town is top dog.

“He’s been there since he got out of college,” Paulsen noted. “I look at him and the others, I look at them as a confirmation or affirmation of the team I built, and they were ready to take over and it’s been very smooth.”

Continuity is vital for a seamless transition, and wouldn’t you know it, once Paulsen stepped down, another Paulsen stepped up: His son, Erik Paulsen, who was promoted to assistant chief, one step behind Gagnon.

A family component, through both DNA and camaraderie, has been important here since this all-volunteer department opened more than 100 years ago.

Erik began his firefighting career in Pembroke 34 years ago. He had worked for his father in the family business – distributing various publications – so a foundation had been built before the son joined dad at the fire department in 1987.

“We didn’t agree exactly on everything,” Erik said, “but there was never anything like hard feelings or arguments. We respected each other’s opinions and we always handled that well.”

They’ve lived in the Suncook Valley their whole lives. Harold graduated from Pembroke Academy in 1961. He won a state championship in soccer. He quickly figured out that he disliked chemistry and calculus after two years at New England College.

Then his father got sick and it made sense for Harold to come home and work in the family business.

“I flunked out,” Harold admitted. “I came home and a teacher said join the fire department, and that was the start of my 58 years.”

Soon, it was Erik’s start as well. Like so many other firefighters, he had ladder trucks and fire hoses and fire safety on his mind at a very young age.

“My earliest memories are from the late 1970s,” Erik said. “We had Christmas parties at the station. When I got older, like 16, I hung around the station and I would go to drills and I’d ride my bike to catch up to the trucks. I felt they were doing something good for the community.”

The new era began on Jan. 1. Gagnon is the 10th fire chief in Pembroke in 120 years. Second-in-command Erik, a former cop, is the technology coordinator at Epsom Central School. His skills have helped the fire department. So has family lineage.

“The history in the Pembroke Fire Department,” Erik said, “is that multiple second and third generations work here.”

The all-volunteer department means its staff does other things to put food on the table. Harold closed his distribution business in 2013, after more than 50 years.

He’s an ex-business owner. He remains a firefighter, though. The scanner told you that.

“Retirement is a little boring,” Harold said. “I retired as chief, but I cannot say I am totally retired. As expected, I miss the fire service.”




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