DERRY — Fire Chief Michael Gagnon sat at his desk, the walls surrounding him at the East Hampstead Road fire station adorned with memories.
Framed photos show classmates during training to be a firefighter and EMS, awards, honors for his department and even a meticulously preserved and mounted Mike and Ike candy box, presented to him as he finished a final shift as battalion chief, ready to embark as his crew’s top leader.
Finishing up the candy, then tossing the box in the trash can, Gagnon recalled how his crew plucked out the small cardboard remnant to mount on a plaque.
“March 18, 2015, that was my crew at Central Fire Station,” Gagnon said.
The chief now readies to step down.
Gagnon announced his plans to retire effective Nov. 1 after serving the Derry department for more than 32 years, six as its chief.
Gagnon grew up in Bedford and began working as a 911 and EMS crew member in Manchester while attending school, working to earn certifications and degrees.
He picked Derry as the next step, saying the department was highly respected in the state. He started in 1989 as a paramedic, firefighter and apparatus operator.
Gagnon offered specifics — getting that job, April 30, 1989, then his first Derry shift on May 3, 1989.
“I remember it like yesterday,” the chief said.
In 1998, he was promoted to lieutenant and also served as the health and safety officer.
In 2002, Gagnon was promoted to battalion chief and directed all fire and EMS operations for the department.
The top job came in March 2015.
Soon after earning the chief title, the fire department faced severe budget cuts and the closure of the East Hampstead Road station.
Town government at that time voted to make cuts, and the fire station was part of it. But residents in town rallied and brought forward petitions, forcing a reversal of those decisions. The station was reopened.
“I didn’t think anyone had a chance of being successful,” Gagnon recalled. “They didn’t give up. The community meant too much to them.”
And although Gagnon said it’s good to change up leadership and credited many in the department highly capable of taking over his job, it’s still bittersweet to be stepping down.
He speaks with extreme pride of those he worked with.
That includes town officials, residents, and the crews in the fire department.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women of this department,” Gagnon said. “The organization is well positioned to move forward in a positive way. Without them I wouldn’t have accomplished anything.”
Gagnon is proud of many accomplishments within the department, namely his team and their efforts enhancing labor and management practices, working on successful efforts to replace and maintain apparatus, keeping ambulance accreditation updated, securing grants and funding to support efforts like active shooter training and equipment, supporting and enhancing professional credentials of fire officers, and maintaining strong community and town support and relationships to ensure safety is kept a top priority.
The fire department also implemented a strong Community Emergency Response Team and hired 33 new personnel with 26 promotions under Gagnon’s leadership.
Gagnon is proud that there have been no known positive workplace COVID-19 exposures during the ongoing pandemic.
In his resignation letter, the chief said he will continue to be the department’s strongest advocate. He also thanked Derry Town Administrator David Caron for steadfast leadership of town staff, town councilors, and other town management for all the support to move the community forward.
Gagnon gave many thanks to his family; his wife Lisa and two sons who stood by him all the years he made fire service his career and life path.
“I ordered a camper,” Gagnon said, noting that it’s time to step back and enjoy time with the family.
“They have been my rock,” he added.
Gagnon said leaving the job will also lessen the everyday stress he feels — an expected and ongoing part of being a firefighter.
“It’s time for me to do that,” he said.
The Derry Fire Department posted on social media that Gagnon was a friend, a leader and brought a lot of laughs to an otherwise stressful career.
In the post, Gagnon is referred to as, “a leader who would always stand up for what he believed in and someone who could see greatness in people who may not have seen it themselves. His impact will be felt by Derry firefighters for generations to come.”
Gagnon hopes his time in Derry has left a lasting impression.
“I’ve had a good run,” he said. “I’m leaving this organization in a good position. I’m at peace.”