NORWAY — Firefighter Mat Allen recently graduated the Basic Firefighting School held at the Paris Fire Department, which he described as “the state minimum to be able to get you inside of a burning building.”
Allen who’s been with the Norway Fire Department since 2013, has been working as the person charged with keeping track of the department’s firefighters in the field, a position that reinforces safety and accountability for the team.
Although accountability is a critically important role, “that’s not where I wanted to be,” Allen says. Allen wants to actively fight fires, charging into infernos, rather than be the safety and accountability firefighter, who doesn’t.
He has wanted to be a firefighter since he was young.
Originally from Newburyport MA, Allen spent a lot of time at the firehouse and police department. His mother would let him hang around, in part because of the close involvement the departments had with Allen early in his life.
Allen has cerebral palsy.
He was diagnosed at birth with cerebral palsy, and later, epilepsy, encountering emergency services regularly as an extension of his medical circumstances. Cerebral palsy, or CP for short, causes an asymmetry of strength and control across the body along with other symptoms, frequently resulting in one side being more difficult to control with weaker muscle tone.
Allen attributes a strong desire to serve his community to those days in his earlier development surrounded by emergency services personnel. He was not interested in discussing any line of work that did not meet his criteria: helping others in their time of need, putting oneself in physical danger, and a sense of excitement.
Allen’s ingrained sense of public service owes itself to his mother. He and all his siblings were adopted by their mother, Diane Allen, who had also fostered dozens of needy children for more than 40 years in Massachusetts and Maine.
Allen got involved with Norway Fire Department when he was a junior in high school. He played lacrosse with Colin Yates, Chief Dennis Yates’ grandson, who invited him to attend a meeting after practice, noticing that he posted online about firefighting.
A graduate of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Allen says that Yates introduced him to his grandfather because he had expressed interest in becoming a firefighter and that, when Allen returned the following day, Chief Yates introduced him to everyone by saying, “hey this is Mat, he’s on the department,” to which Allen confers he was completely unaware until hearing it announced by the chief and being given the paperwork for a background check.
Because he was in special education, regulations allowed him back after graduation to develop a career and find work. Allen, in accord with his interests and convictions, chose to work with Pace, and in Norway with Yates. Allen would attend a few classes at the high school, and then the rest of the day with Pace emergency medical services or working with Yates at NFD.
As training in the BFS increased its complexity and intensity, Allen’s trainers had to take special consideration to Allen’s ability to perform; ensuring that he could do the physical actions required of a firefighter. Before a technical exercise with the rest of his class, called a “training evolution,” Allen’s trainers would instruct him how to perform the class exercise, however would not assist him beyond that.
Despite having cerebral palsy, Allen must still be able to accomplish particular tasks safely, considering the circumstances, and others are relying on him as well. According to Allen, “as things got more and more hands-on a lot of times guys would be like, ‘let me help you with this,’ and I’d say, ‘No! You guys can’t help me with this I need to see if I can do it.’”
If they come across a task Allen cannot perform because of his cerebral palsy, and those do crop up, the team adjust accordingly. Allen is still expanding on his skills and career goals, although they are all solidly grounded in helping others.
He had considered joining the military, first as a Marine, then the Coast Guard, ultimately finding himself ineligible for military service. Although equipped with a litany of skills and certifications, including the ability to enter a building set ablaze, Allen will not be eligible for Firefighter One and Two,’ the classes necessary to endow a firefighter with their national certification, able to pursue employment in their field across the country.
He cites the asymmetrical incongruence of his CP and the extremely strict parameters for the class. The training each BFS graduate received cost their fire departments approximately $1,000, the more advanced training classes required for national certification cost approximately $1,200 per candidate.
Allen however, is in no way deterred, looking now to explore fields that won’t impose restrictions on his productivity, he thought and was told he would probably never be in a position to actively fight a burning building, a hurdle he has leaped over with his graduation from the Paris’ 2017 BFS class.
Allen reports that he will continue to operate as the Department’s Accountability Officer, but will also be able to do what Allen refers to as, “overhaul,” when a team of firefighters’ smash holes and check in a scorched structure’s walls, ceiling, voids, partitions, to ensure that derelict flames didn’t migrate elsewhere within the structure and still pose a safety issue.
Allen is now qualified to perform this function, taking strain off the firefighters who were just tasked with putting out the main fire, consuming their oxygen reserves in the process.
Allen is keenly aware of the strain not having properly certified support can foster. He says, “A lot of the time what happens now, is the guys who go carry the hose in to knock down the bulk of the fire, have to carry the hose line out, and on top of all this are doing searches [for people] the entire time.
“Then those guys have to take the packs off that they had, go to rehab [check in with on-site emergency medical services], get cleared by rehab, and then usually end up going back in.”
Allen and his newly empowered colleagues will all be able to assist in “overhaul” in the future. He recalls just what happens when a team member is on scene who is under-qualified for the task at hand.
Allen remembers a story he’d been told in training, a junior firefighter dons the necessary gear for entry, and was then stopped because an emergency help call had been placed by another firefighter already inside calling for a Rapid Intervention Team, and the junior firefighters did not have the necessary training to respond.
Regardless of an individual firefighter’s qualification, firefighters operate as teams, relying on each other’s skills and commitments. Norway’s entire fire department will have all its members trained for the specialized rescue of one firefighter by another.
Allen exemplifies defying limitations. Finding a barrier in his current progression, Allen is enthusiastically examining the prospect of working with the Maine State Police Bombs and Explosives Unit.
He is interested in operating robots for the unit, a tool frequently used by officers when they cannot safely approach a bomb or unknown device.
Whatever he ends up doing for his career, Allen is inspirational not because of his maladies, but what he does despite them.