There aren’t too many Everett firefighters that grew up in the city, but got their start fighting fires on a world-class ski slope in Colorado.
There is one though, and that would be Capt. Tony O’Brien, 60, who has served as the head of training and safety for the Everett Fire Department since 2014.
O’Brien grew up on Jackson Avenue in Everett and graduated from Malden Catholic in 1978. A friend of his was an Auxiliary Firefighter in the city, and helped him to get on the squad. However, when the effects of Proposition 2 ½ hit the City, there was little chance he would be hired in Everett.
So, the young man went West.
“There was little chance of getting hired in Everett,” he said. “They laid off 34 people. We lost an engine and ladder company in 1981 and they never came back. I had read an article by the Fire Chief from Vail, Colorado and I decided to apply there and I got accepted. It was quite a place for a 20-year-old guy to be living at. I worked for the Town of Vail as a firefighter and EMT.”
However, after getting an Associates’ Degree in Fire Science Tech, he returned to Massachusetts and worked as an analyst for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy and also as an EMT for Cataldo Ambulance. In 1983, he was hired as a firefighter by the Town of Lexington.
In 1986, his hometown came calling, and he was hired to the EFD.
In 1989 he made lieutenant, and in 1992 he became a captain. From 1992 to 2014, he rode on the Engine 1 company. He said that was an amazing situation and he will never forget the camaraderie of those he served with.
He is married to his wife of many years, Dr. Karen O’Brien, and they have five children, Anthony, Matt, Megan, Coleman and Katherine. While all are now adults, it was sometimes a challenge to take care of everything and still work a firefighters’ schedule. He said one Christmas, he’ll never forget his fellow Jakes coming through.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with the guys I worked with on Engine 1,” he said. “Some are still on the job and they are like a second family. In 2010, I was pretty sick…It was Christmas time and I had five children at home and couldn’t do all my Christmas shopping. The guys…went out and got all the presents for me.”
A Deacon in his Catholic Parish, he said most times raising the kids was not as hard as one might think as he and his wife had schedules that meshed pretty well.
“They were great kids growing up and in a lot of ways they were very responsible,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without the Fire Department. My wife and I were able to match our schedules pretty well.”
During that time on Engine 1, he was also very instrumental in making sure defibrillators were added to every fire apparatus, and available for medical calls.
Nowadays, Capt. O’Brien works to make sure the EFD is properly trained and in compliance.
“My job today is primarily compliance,” he said. “There are tons of things now the Fire Service has to comply with…There’s an entire regimen the Fire Service now demands and that we’re trying to become compliant in. I think we’re about 85 percent done and that’s a testament to Chief Tony Carli for making this a priority.”
As part of that, Capt. O’Brien has a degree in Fire Sciences from Salem State University and is a Certified Health and Safety Official from Keene State.
The job now also means he checks all the equipment and meters and apparatus for safety and compliance. He also trains the members of the EFD on things like proper CPR techniques and how to use the tools like Carbon Monoxide meters.
Beyond that, a key in the Fire Service these days is making sure the turnout gear is clean and safe. One of the key areas of the job is making sure firefighters are not exposed to contaminants that lead to occupational cancer. Cancer for firefighters is an epidemic these days, and Everett has experienced just such a death when Firefighter Susan Pipitone died in 2018.
“That was psychologically devastating to this department,” he said. “We make sure all turnout gear now stays on the apparatus floor. It has to be clean and not contaminated. There are just a lot of things to consider. We brought the Fire Academy in and did night classes to tell the members what to be concerned about and what to look for when visiting the doctor – early warning signs.”
He has also positioned the Department to handle medical calls and have the proper equipment to treat medical issues in the field.
“The members have embraced that and we never looked back,” he said. “In terms of medical response, Everett Fire Department as a basic response is much further ahead than most communities.”
Fire Chief Tony Carli said Captain O’Brien has been a great helping hand in transitioning the Fire Service to medical calls, and will be even more important if they go forward with the in-house EMS service.
“Capt. O’Brien is incredibly important to the Department,” he said. “He’s the training captain and the most senior captain…I lean on him greatly and he’s been instrumental in the EMS service we’re rolling out. Long before it was accepted, he was instrumental in us having and knowing how to use defibrillators on every apparatus. At the time, the union didn’t want to deal with that in the way they may not want to deal with progressive issues now. Tony comes here every day and wants to leave the place better than he found it.”
Fire Union President Craig Hardy said it is his experience and knowledge of the Fire Service that makes Capt. O’Brien invaluable to the members.
Captain Tony O’Brien is a great man who truly loves the fire service,” he said. “He helps any members with anything they need and is always offering his knowledge to help us all. His decades of experience has truly made our department better and we are truly grateful to have him on our team.”
O’Brien said he is grateful to the Everett Fire Department for a great career that is still going strong.
“I am so grateful to the EFD to have been able to do everything I did,” he said. “I got a Bachelor’s Degree with them and raised five kids and was embedded in OSHA programs and it’s all because of the City’s Fire Service.”