Brookline firefighter serves with FEMA Urban Search and Rescue

Brookline Fire Department Lt. Sean Guilfoy inside Fire Department Station 1 in Brookline Village. Photo by Greg Levinsky/BU News Service.

By Greg Levinsky
BU News Service

Previously published in the Brookline Tab

BROOKLINE — Sean Guilfoy never hopes for emergencies. But when they do arise, the Brookline Fire Department lieutenant embraces his role as a first responder. The 37-year-old recently returned from Virginia, where he was deployed to help residents after Hurricane Florence.

“I don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone — ever,” said Guilfoy, seated on a ladder truck at Fire Station 1 in Brookline Village. “But if I have to go help somebody, I’m not going to be disappointed.”

Guilfoy said when he is called to the scene of a fire, he becomes so immersed in the situation he develops “tunnel vision.” He couldn’t pinpoint a specific rescue as the most remarkable and said each one carries its own memories. Especially fires.

“A fire puts more adrenaline and excitement into you more than anything,” Guilfoy said. “Any of the fires that I’ve had over the course of my career are the ones with the high anxiety because there is the most risk.”

When he is called out to the scene of a fire, Guilfoy said, his sense of smell is completely inhibited because of a large mask. But his other senses elevate during a rescue, especially his ability to recognize and feel objects through his heavy duty gloves.

While at the scene, Gilfoy said he often has to help figure out where he and his crew should enter a pitch black building.

“You’re listening for everything really, any sort of sound where somebody might be trapped,” Guilfoy said. “It’s really loud.

“There are saws and glass breaking, hoses turning into steam, water turning into steam — all sort of sounds.”

Guilfoy, who has been with the Brookline Fire Department for 13 years, also is serving as a member of both the state and federal Urban Search and Rescue teams. He was deployed with FEMA for Hurricane Florence relief efforts on Sept. 11 and returned to normal work in Brookline eight days later.

Brookline Fire Chief John F. Sullivan, who joined the fire department in March after a 30-year tenure in Worcester, described Guilfoy as “one of the most prolific go-getters in the department” and one of their “leading experts” in complicated rescue efforts.

“Sean is very passionate about his role in the fire service,” Sullivan, 56, said. “He’s a guy who really loves the job and is willing to share his knowledge and expertise with everybody.”

Guilfoy said he has embraced his role as a first responder.

“You’ve just got to know that you’re there for people, and you have to be prepared for what’s coming to you,” Guilfoy said. “When people call the fire department, it’s their worst day.”

An alternative route

Growing up in Brookline and attending the Public Schools of Brookline, Guilfoy said he initially was on the classic college-bound track. He enrolled at The Ohio State University after graduating high school but it lasted only a year.

The traditional route wasn’t for him.

“I knew I didn’t want to work in an office,” Guilfoy said.

Guilfoy and his younger brother Ryan Guilfoy grew up in a house directly behind Fire Station 1. The younger Guilfoy, 34, is a captain in the Brookline Fire Department. Their grandfather was a Boston police officer.

“It’s very much a family tradition in many families to continue the work of public services,” Sullivan said. “It’s great having that bond.”

Ryan said he and his brother have differences in their processes but usually “come to the same conclusion.”

“We take different routes to get where we want to be,” he said.

After Sean Guilfoy’s short stint at Ohio State, he worked a variety of jobs including bartending, bouncing, construction and landscaping over the next five years. He then decided to join the fire department and in 2006 became a full-time member of Brookline Fire. At the time, his younger brother was still in high school.

Guilfoy, who was promoted to lieutenant in 2012, said he enjoyed taking classes with the Massachusetts Fire Academy. Many of his teachers were members of the state FEMA team and ultimately inspired him to join the task force.

“It’s stuff we didn’t do here in Brookline,” Guilfoy said.

He learned three different types of rescues: getting people out of confined spaces and holes, as well as high angle and long angle rescues that require ropes, leverage and machines.

The deployment

Late on Sept. 10, Guilfoy received a call from Anita Arnum with the state FEMA task force. She said task force members would need to head to the headquarters in Beverly for preparation to help relief efforts after Hurricane Florence.

Guilfoy, a father of two children ages 2 and 7, told his wife Jessie he was leaving and wasn’t sure when he’d come back.

“Just because you’re activated doesn’t mean you’re going,” Guilfoy said. “They roster a team.”

Guilfoy said he got the initial call at around 10 p.m. and arrived in Beverly before 1 a.m. Just eight hours later, Guilfoy left for Virginia in a 14-vehicle convoy with nearly 50 rescue staff. This was his first time being deployed with FEMA.

The storm did not hit Virginia as hard as officials expected.

“Luckily for the people of the Virginia, they did not need our assistance,” Guilfoy said. “The storm shifted further west.”

While in Virginia, Guilfoy said, the task force did “a lot of training” including hazards specific to southern states such as how to combat venomous snakes and spiders. Guilfoy said he feels better prepared to help people facing disasters now.

Task Force Public Information officer, Tom Gatzunis, outlined their mentality.

“Every individual on the task force prays our services will never be needed because that means someone is in bad shape, the conditions are not good for them,” Gatzunis said. “When the call comes through that are services are needed, we want to be the first ones put to work so we can help people.”

Gatzunis said Guilfoy embodies what a task force member should be.

“Every task force member is a very dedicated, very professional person,” Gatzunis said. “The amount of training, review and vetting that’s done for all members just ensures we have the right personnel.”

There are 28 of these task forces in the country and the Massachusetts branch is made up of approximately 150 members from around New England. They were assigned to Virginia as part of an effort to organize relief efforts after Hurricane Florence.

Even though Virginia residents did not end up needing their help, they were assigned to the state as part of a strategic plan to deploy people to anywhere the storm might do

“I’d rather have all these skills and not have to use them than have to use them all the time,” Guilfoy said. “It’s good that people know there are people ready to help.”

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