They Called Him ‘Chief’ For a Reason, Part Two

by | Jan 30, 2015

A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller that hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman's Hall.

A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller that hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman’s Hall.

You can read Part One of They Called Him “Chief” for a Reason here.

Getting back to being a fireman. . . . Through Fred’s efforts, and that of other dedicated members, the East Greenwich Fire Department developed a reputation of being one of the best around, considered the finest volunteer company in the state, and one to be emulated by others. Much of that was due to Fred and his tireless efforts to keep the department functioning at a high level.

Remember, in those days, it was served by volunteers. I remember guys being let out of class at EGHS to go and fight fires, and many of the men worked deals where they could be let out of work when The Horn went off.  Oh, that Horn! Blasting out its two or three number call telling what zone of town the fire was in. Count the blasts. Check your book and go like a bat out the reaches of Hades.

I cannot remember ever failing to answer that horn, many times sprinting from my house behind the police station the two blocks to the firehouse. I didn’t always make it to the station on time, but it wasn’t for lack of trying and the sprint sure helped me later in athletic endeavors.

I was motivated by a sense of civic duty, the desire to be of service and the excitement of it all. Being a fireman, that volunteer spirit, most of my friends were volunteers at one time or another. Some hung around it their whole lives.

East Greenwich was one of the first fire districts in the state to start a junior firemen’s program. Back then the chief saw the future of the fire department and the firefighting profession in the dedication of young volunteers. In that though, time, the times and the love of money would prove him wrong.

The young vols of that time would have to take first aid training and spend 15 hours of work at Kent Hospital. Many of the 100 or so young volunteers also took fire courses at R.I. Junior College (now CCRI). Drills were usually held Sunday mornings and there were meetings held midweek.

Many times the drills would consist of fighting a fire in some old building, set on fire for the express purpose of giving the trainees, and even the vets, experience in putting out fires. It was the only way to give them that vital experience.

That was not the case though in getting first aid and rescue experience. With an active Quonset Point Naval Air Station only five minutes away, the young volunteers got plenty of experience patching and bandaging young sailors and Marines coming back from liberty, usually drunk and speeding.

There was also the occasional dead serviceman. One was killed down by the Railroad Inn one night and his body lie there in one spot with his head fifty yards away. Another time four NK football players were hit by a train chasing their girlfriends. No one there will ever forget that.

I even recall a baby or two being delivered along the way, way back then.

These were quite the experiences for 15- and 16-year-old boys back then and they grew up fast in the ways of the world.

Chief Miller was always lavish in his praise for “his boys,” who kept the department going. They put their lives on the line for NO PAY! Guess they were stupid, or at least “too yesterday.” Yet, they performed marvelously at big fires like the Big Star Market fire; the Benny’s fire; the Dunn house; the Ross Aker fire; the Dooser-Reynolds Pig Farm fire, which was set to cover up the murder of a family of five up on South Road and the Bleachery fire to name a few of the bigger ones.

In fact, Chief Miller saved my life and that of two of my fellow firefighters, taking us off the roof of one of the Bleachery buildings just before it collapsed into a fiery pit below. We had nailed a ladder on the icy roof of one building to get above a building across the way and send a stream of water to quell that blaze, not knowing that there was a blaze going on beneath of us. Chief Miller saw it though and got us off just minutes before our perch collapsed into the flames below thus making my mother happy to see her son come home that night (and we did this for free?).


I wonder what Fred would think of the situation today. The chief, deputy chief and fire marshall all have department vehicles. Fred used his own car, had a portable light and, I think, eventually got one of those stickers you can slap on door saying EGFD. He did have his white fire chief’s hat though. I think he was proud of that. Today firemen only answer the call on the day they are working, and that is one of every three or four, and despite being paid now they can still work an extra job or two. As one of them said, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!”

Would Fred think they were part-time firemen? The volunteers worked another job and answered the call whenever The Horn sounded! Maybe they should be volunteers. I am sure he was not against firemen making money to support their families. No one is against that. But, he would be upset if they created a situation where their love of the Almighty Dollar caused hardship to their fellow townsmen. He never liked that! He was never like that! And, I don’t suppose he would take kindly to those that were. We’ve had a few.

I bet he would glow, though, when he heard of the firemen in New York City, who, on 9-11, left warm house and beds to rush in on their day off to battle the fires devastating the Twin Towers. Some of them rushed to their death. I think he would say that those guys deserved to pat themselves on the back and call themselves firemen! Anyway, it would be interesting to get his take on it.

So, Chief, even though you have been gone quite awhile, you are still thought of warmly (no pun intended). You left a legacy of service and giving that is unparalleled. You were way back then, you are now, and you always will be: “The Chief”

They called you that for a reason AND justifiably so!

This piece of Mems & Rems (Memories & Reminiscences) is dedicated to all those local boys, those firemen who answered the call – who answered The Horn! – for all those years, with no thought of self, no pay and very little glory. Those guys who put duty first and service to other above all, but especially to George, Adolph, Mac, Pumpkin, Leigh, Hub, Don, Frank, Joe, Elmer, Guy, Bill, Ken, Moose, Lawson and a host of other dedicated volunteers, too numerous to mention here, who gave of their blood, sweat, tears and time through all those years to make the volunteer spirit something to be proud of! Some people may think you fools or crazy for laying it all on the line for no compensation, but you have something you can always be proud of and there are many who are proud of you!

May you never be forgotten, and I hope that Spirit might someday, catch on again with our young people.

God Bless You All and May You continue to Live In The Spirit . . .

Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and loves telling stories of his boyhood in a simpler time, in a small town, filled with outstanding people, amazing characters and adventures by the barrelful.


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