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Nate Gibbons Hangs Up His Fire Department Hat

Nate Gibbons may be the only fire marshal in America who graduated from Choate and Yale, and whose resume includes radio DJ, cable TV director and video producer.

Soon, Gibbons could be the only ex-fire marshal with that resume.

The Westport Fire Department icon retires May 31. He’s spent 27 years here, in roles that also include public information officer. Before that, he was a volunteer firefighter.

Long before that — as a kid growing up not far from the Greens Farms fire station — he rode along as trucks responded to brush fires. (“You can’t do that today,” he notes.)

Gibbons has had long, fulfilling careers, both before and with the WFD. The other day he sat in the central firehouse. As firefighters trained outside using a wrecked vehicle, and a call sent them scrambling into action, he reflected on all those years.

Westport fire marshal Nate Gibbons.

After creating a production studio on Post Road West, and his own company in Norwalk, Gibbons traveled the world making corporate training films.

The Fire Department of New York and a fire magazine were early clients. Working closely on scripts and shoots, he bonded with fire officials. But the constant travel burned him out.

“You should be a firefighter!” they told him. He took tests, was #1 on the Westport list, sold his company and — despite taking a pay cut from 6 figures to $26,000 his first year — never looked back.

“I was outside. I developed great relationships. Every day was exciting, and a challenge,” Gibbons says. “I thrived.”

Firefighter Nate Gibbons, in action.

with his experience as a DJ — he was a calm, clear, compassionate, just-humorous-enough and very educational voice on WWPT-FM in the days after storms like Sandy, Henri and Isaias.

From how to take care of your generator and how to conserve ice, to trivia like the difference between flotsam and jetsam, Gibbons kept residents safe and sane in tough, unelectrified times.

As a fire inspector and marshal, he spent countless hours reviewing site plans. He talked with stakeholders, walked construction sites and mediated conflicting demands, all so that his colleagues would have fewer calls to answer — and we’d all be safer.

Nate Gibbons, through the years.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many disasters his work prevented. But the fact that Westport has not had an issue in years — no major fires, no problems with emergency vehicle access, none of those things we never think about until they happen — did not happen by, um, accident.

Not all of that is due to Gibbons’ vigilance, of course. He notes that a sharp decrease in smoking has led to a similar drop in fires caused by cigarettes. And public education about drinking and driving has lessened dramatically the number of extrications the WFD performs. (Another reason: improved automotive design and technology.)

Other changes are less positive. When Gibbons first started, many co-workers lived in Westport, or nearby. Changing housing patterns — and salaries that lag behind — mean that some firefighters live as far away as Brookfield, Killingworth and Mystic.

Gone are the days when, even off duty, they could respond within minutes to a call.

Nate Gibbons was called one day for a possible hazardous material. No one knew what was inside a large container. It turned out to be a few pounds of marijuana.

Looking ahead 5 years, Gibbons says that the WFD’s biggest challenge will be related to those same changing housing patterns, including many new apartments. Fighting fires in “podium-style” buildings (those built over parking garages) is hard. Renters are not always as safety-conscious as homeowners.

Fortunately, he says, many of Westport’s biggest new residences have fire alarms, and are built with safety in mind.

He’s also proud that Westport has invested in thing like hazmat protection and marine firefighting, and training. “These guys drill all the time,” Gibbons notes.

Gibbons’ service to Westport includes years as a union official. He fought for many things, including additional firefighters on trucks.

He’s seen “terrible things” in his time here, he says: two young children who drowned in a swimming pool, and horrific accidents on I-95.

But, he notes, “in what other job could I deliver a baby without being a doctor?” It happened at Sherwood Island one hot summer day.

“I was more scared than at any fire,” he recalls. But his training kicked in. He got the baby out, cut the umbilical cord, put it on its mother’s chest — and heard it cry.

Quick decisions are part of that training. And, Gibbons notes, making a wrong decision is better than making none at all. At least you can change a wrong decision.

His best decision ever was “taking this job.” His mother was opposed. His father loved it. His wife Elizabeth has always been behind him.

Nate Gibbons’ wife has always supported him — even when his public information duties meant he’d be away from home, right after storms or other disasters, for days at a time. Here he records a daily briefing for WWPT-FM.

Another good decision was to retire. Gibbons is just 65. But, he says, “It’s time. I’ve got a great guy backing me up. It’s his time now. I’ve got an obligation to let other people move up.”

After retirement, Gibbons will spend time fixing up the Spicer Road farmhouse he recently bought.

He’ll also have more to spend with his wife. He worked 13 straight days after Superstorm Sandy. Westporters hung on to his every word, with his frequent updates on WWPT.

We will miss his soothing voice, and wise words. We’ll miss too his behind-the-scenes work, making our town safer for everyone who lives, works and passes through it.

But — based on that impressive and eclectic résumé — Nate Gibbons is just warming up for his next act.

BONUS FEATURE: I asked soon-to-retire Nate Gibbons for any last message to Westporters. Instantly, he said: “Have working smoke detectors. Have an escape plan, and practice it. Not just for fires — there are plenty of guns, and plenty of kooks, out there. Keep your head on a swivel. And don’t just have Plan B. Have Plans C, D and E.”

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