The First-Person Project

Rob Wollner ’96

Boston, MA

Lieutenant, Belmont, MA, Fire Department

Major: Communication

A member of my family has been in the armed forces, one branch or another, since the Civil War. Mostly in the Navy. I’ve always believed in public service and being involved in something much larger than yourself. I knew at a fairly young age that I wanted to go into the service and then go to college and have my life progress from there.

I grew up in Plymouth, Mass.; my family still lives there. My uncle worked for the Belmont Police Department, so public safety has always been to some extent a part of my family’s life. When I first graduated high school, I went into the Navy and I did four years of active duty, then I did three years in the Reserves. I was a cryptologist in the Navy. Onboard ship, we were a division of the naval security group, doing intelligence collection. I worked with linguists. We’d have somebody onboard who’d speak Farsi or Chinese or Russian. We’d conduct our operations and if they found anything they thought was of interest, they would give it to me, and I would send it from the ship anywhere in the world that it needed to go. It was fascinating. I can’t talk much more about that.

I served on two aircraft carriers – the USS Coral Sea and the USS Nimitz. I went from being onboard ship with 3,000 men to Keene State College, where the student body population was majority female my freshman year. Scott McPherson, my best friend in high school, had gone to Keene State, and I would visit him when I came home on leave. I really liked the school a lot, and I was thinking about majoring in education, and Keene State had strong elementary ed program. That’s what brought me to Keene.

College life was very, very different, and my experience was very, very different from that of most students. I struggled a little with it at times. I spent four years in the service, during the Gulf War. What other students perceived to be big issues were the little undergraduate dramas – the growing up aspects of college life. I’d done that in different ways.

I started as an elementary ed and journalism double major, but ended up dropping education and switching from journalism to communication. The summer between my sophomore and junior years, my friend Scott, who had graduated and was writing for the Keene Sentinel, brought me along to a Cheshire County Democrats event he was covering. So I went and I was talking with Pat Russell, who would eventually become mayor of Keene, and Congressman Dick Swett, and Rick Trombley, the state Democratic leader. They asked if I would run for the state legislature. So I went to Keene City Hall, paid my $2 filing fee, and ran. I went door-to-door to every house in my district, with my little postcards with my picture and a bio. I’m Rob Wollner, I’m running for state rep, I live around the corner on School Street. I’d appreciate it if you’d consider voting for me. And I did that from July until election day. I won my seat by 38 votes. I got legislation through that provided some funding for public kindergarten, a college tuition savings program, and free tuition for members of the state National Guard on a space-available basis, at the state’s public colleges and universities.

My plans to work for Dick Swett after graduation fell apart when he lost his US Senate bid. So I moved to Concord and worked in retail for L. L. Bean for a while, then got into the financial services industry for a few years, first at State Street Bank and Trust and then at Mellon. The people I worked with were fantastic, but the work was very unsatisfying. Being in a cube, doing that type of work, after a while it didn’t really appeal to me. So I thought back on my time in the Navy, and remembered how much I enjoyed the damage control and firefighting aspect of working aboard ship. I did a little research and found I was getting close to the upper age limit to be a firefighter in Massachusetts.

So I took the Civil Service exam, topped the list, and was hired within a year in Belmont. I’ve been here 10-and-a-half years now. Best decision I ever made. I think I’m the only person I know who can’t wait to go to work in the morning. Work’s an awful lot of fun. Some days it’s terrible – don’t get me wrong. Some days are really sad and really terrible. But most days are pretty good. I love the people I work with, and every day’s a little different. And unlike when I worked for financial services, being in the fire service, although you may not want to see me coming up your walk at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re generally pretty happy that I’m there. Whether it’s medical or a fire or some other sort of incident, I feel like what I do matters.

Belmont’s a suburb about three miles from downtown Boston, about 4.5 square miles, about 25,000 people. We handle between 3,500 and 4,000 calls a year. That’s eight to 15 a day. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the department would have a decent-sized fire once a week, and a multiple alarm fire about once a month. We still have fires now, but not in the numbers that we had a generation ago. The American fire service has done a very good job of putting ourselves out of business in some capacity, with smoke detectors, carbon monoxide alarms, sprinkler systems, things that really weren’t in place. Now we’re getting to the fires quicker, we’re notified of incidents faster so they don’t grow into those bigger events. Roughly half of our calls are medical. In Belmont now, we’re almost all EMTs and 10 or 12 of the guys I work with are paramedics.

We also do a lot of code enforcement and inspections. I’m a lieutenant, and I’m the training officer and assistant fire prevention officer for the Belmont Fire Department. I teach at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. I must have done something pretty fantastic in a previous life; I just fell into a job that I really love here at the Fire Department, and then my side job, teaching at the fire academy, that’s an awful lot of fun, too. I work with recruits for about three months and teach them everything from the basics – how to put on your gear – to the more advanced evolutions – how to operate the pump, and firefighting strategies and tactics, and search and rescue, and climbing ladders. I get to work with firefighters in the really large cities and with guys who work in the very small communities.

Fires are all different. I’m very fortunate – I have not worked a fatal fire. Our guys are calm. We have a job to do. We’re going to get there as quickly as we can. We’re going to get there safely. If we show up and we’re worked up and we’re really excited, we’re not helping anybody. We’re coming around a corner, there’s fire blowing out the windows of the house. Do we start yelling and screaming and losing our mind? No. We take the hydrant, we stretch the attack line, we knock the fire down. We help anybody who needs help getting out of the building. This is what we do. This is our job. We get to everybody’s house in town within four minutes. But, yeah, it is fun to hear the tones go off. You slide down the pole, you put your gear on, you jump in the big red truck. A couple minutes later you’re inside somebody’s house and all four walls are on fire. I hope that doesn’t happen to anybody, but if it does, I hope I’m working.

When I’m not at work? Well, I’m leaving a week from today, I’m going to Hawaii, I’m getting married. My fiancée, Deb, is a nurse. She works for an assisted living center. We’ve dated for a couple of years. In October we’re going to jump on a plane. It’ll be just the two of us on a beach with the JP and a ukulele player. I have a daughter, Eve, from my first marriage. She’s 11, in sixth grade, and lives with me on weekends and a couple days a week.

I love Keene State, and try to get back as often as I can, and try to give back to the college when we have the means to. I loved my time at Keene. Some of the best friends I have today I met at Keene State. Those people are still a very large part of my life. I have very fond memories of living on campus, going to school there, my professors. I got to be in the legislature, I got to work for the Equinox, I got to know Dr. Y – President Stanley Yarosewick – pretty well, and his wife. A large part of who I am today came about because of my experiences at Keene State. It helped me become the man I am today. It sounds like rhetoric, but it’s true.