WESTFORD — Donald Parsons was just 16 when the Forge Village youth signed up for the Westford Fire Department Auxiliary.
“I never thought it would take me to where I am today,” says Parsons, a Fire Lt. who joined the group in 1976.
It’s a career he has no intention of leaving just yet. He’s four years away from the state’s mandatory retirement age for firefighters and police.
Fire Chief Joseph Targ calls Parsons’ 45 years as a firefighter “an extraordinary accomplishment. I see people retiring after 32 years (the minimum requirement for a pension), but he’s still going strong.”
Parsons is sitting in his spacious, corner office filled with natural light on the first floor of the new Westford Fire Department headquarters on Boston Road across from the ruin that was once the Drew Farms store.
He is the Fire Department’s safety officer and is in frequent contact with town residents — thus the size and location of his office near the main entrance. His office is packed with volumes of books on fire and safety codes. “You should have seen my office in the old fire station,” he says.
In 1976, Westford had a call fire department. Parsons’ father Robert was among the call firefighters. The department was family-oriented, he remembers, with fathers, sons and brothers serving the town.
The auxiliary was created as a training organization with Civil Defense (now Emergency Management) money. Young men ages 16 to 21 were recruited.
Parsons was a student at Westford Academy in what was then “a brand, spanking new building.” He was not the best student, he admits. But it’s clear from his conversation that he has a deep love of learning and teaching.
“We did not get paid, but we did go to calls mostly as gofers and we had a lot of cleanup work. We got gear and we’d go to training once a month.” His first helmet, still bright yellow, sits atop a cabinet in his office.
At age 21, he joined the ranks of the town’s call firefighters. Call firefighters traditionally do not work out of fire stations. They usually hold full-time jobs in another field. Parsons followed that tradition.
After graduating from Westford Academy, he went to work at Digital Equipment Corporation, where “I got to work in hazardous materials and safety management. I started as a coordinator and then was promoted to safety manager. And they paid me to go to school.”
While at Digital, Westford went to full-time, career firefighters, and Parsons was offered the chance to take a full-time position. “But I was in the corporate world, and I could still be a call firefighter. I had the best of both worlds.” He turned down the opportunity.
Remembering Digital’s inglorious fall as a high tech leader, Parsons says he was laid off “when the bottom fell out.” Then he went to work at Laidlaw in Andover, a company that specialized in hazardous waste disposal.
Westford has changed dramatically since Parsons grew up there in the 1960s. Then, the town was a farming community known for its apple orchards, a granite quarry, and a woolen mill. The town’s population in 1960 was 6,300; by 1970 it was 10,300 and by 1980, 13,400. It now stands at 26,000.
Firefighting has changed dramatically, too. For Westford’s sake, it had to. “We had rubber boots, rubber coats and plastic hats. Now the equipment is all special cloth that is heat- and fire-resistant.
“It weighs a lot more, but it’s for our own protection,” he says. He remembers wearing self-contained breathing packs so heavy they couldn’t be worn for long. The older firefighters refused to wear them. “‘We’ve got leather lungs’, they said.”
“We fight fires differently now. We’re a lot more aggressive, but technology and the gear allows us to be. We’ve had to become smarter. We get in deeper situations and that’s where we see firefighter deaths.”
For Westford, one of those situations involves apartment buildings. “Growing up, I would never have imagined Westford with apartment buildings.”
It was an apartment house where he experienced his worst moments as a firefighter. “It was the Beacon Street fire in 2007. A young girl died in that fire. I was the safety officer that night. The building was fully involved when we got there. We knew a person was trapped and they made a valiant effort to get to her, but I had to pull everyone out. I turned to the chief and said ‘We need to evacuate the building.’ He said, ‘Do it.’ No questions asked,” Parsons said.
“One of the lieutenants came up to me and said, ‘We were in trouble up there. Thank you.’”
Parsons is a man of faith and many interests: bagpipes (the Westford District Pipes and Drums welcomes new members, no experience necessary); Revolutionary War re-enactments (a chance to learn and teach history); bluegrass music; and the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.
He is an active parishioner at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, where his wife Beth is music director. He is the verger and responsible for the ordering of religious services.
It was his faith, his family and his work that brought him through colon and kidney cancer. He was diagnosed in 2018 with colon cancer; the kidney cancer was found after that. “If not for home, church and here, I wouldn’t have made it. The future was unknown.” After two major surgeries, his follow-up tests have been clear.
Parsons is especially proud of his work at the Firefighting Academy in Stow, where he has developed training for a pilot project that shows fire departments how to set up fire alarms for the elderly. “It boggles my mind when I hear about fire deaths among the elderly because there was no smoke alarm or no carbon monoxide alarm,” he said.
He’s also written the two fire prevention training manuals the academy uses.
His work for the academy includes the Public Fire & Life Safety Education Task Force. Jennifer Mieth, who knows him from the task force, says, “He has helped the Firefighting Academy develop good training for fire prevention officers using top-notch educational…