Lifelong friends: Mass. police, fire chiefs to retire together after 43 years
Born four days apart, Fire Chief Jeff Blanchard and Police Chief Walter Sweeney have been friends since middle school
By Wheeler Cowperthwaite
The Patriot Ledger
HANOVER, Mass. — Born four days apart, Hanover Fire Chief Jeff Blanchard and Police Chief Walter Sweeney have been living parallel lives.
That trend will continue later this year when they both officially retire from their respective departments after 43 years of working for the town.
The pair have been friends since they first met in middle school, and have both been working in public safety in Hanover since they were teenagers. They started as call firefighters and dispatchers, then Sweeney went on to become a police officer and Blanchard became a firefighter.
After they each married and had children, they took family trips together. Both men have been glued to their department-issued radios for years now, and often if one had to leave a gathering, the other did too.
Town Manager Joseph Colangelo, who has worked with both chiefs for the past four years, said both men are "class acts."
"They're just weeks from retirement, and you'd never know it. During this last disaster, the nor'easter, both were up the whole time," Colangelo said. "Both of them, I know, only have one gear: it's fifth gear and they're in it 24 hours a day."
Colangelo said it can be hard to keep up with the two chiefs, as the pair have led their departments and the town through countless nor'easters, hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic.
A history of firefighting
For Blanchard, the connection to the town's fire department runs deep. Some of his earliest memories involve his dad, the chief engineer, fighting fires or otherwise involved in the department.
"I grew up listening to the fire radio," Blanchard said. "We'd be in the car and there would be a fire so we would go to it. I grew up in the atmosphere."
In 1978, when he was 18 years old, Blanchard officially joined the fire department as a call firefighter. Two years later, he became a part-time firefighter and went full time in 1985. Four years later, he was promoted to lieutenant. In 2006, he became the deputy chief and was promoted to chief in 2011.
"From career firefighter to the call lieutenant, I've held almost every position," he said.
Blanchard said a lot of things have changed during his time at the fire department, but one of the biggest is the transformation from firefighting to emergency medical services, a change seen across the profession.
"When I joined, there was one ambulance offering basic life support and if anybody needed anything, it wasn't happening until we got to the emergency room," he said.
Now most firefighters are also paramedics. The department has expanded to deal with a wide range of issues. Now they are all hazardous material specialists and fire prevention professionals.
The last two years have been trying and are a source of pride for Blanchard, he said, as the department established its Mobile Integrated Health program and the town coalesced around its pandemic response.
Blanchard said one development he is most proud of is the Community Emergency Response Team, which he oversees in his role as the town's emergency management director. That team, which includes volunteers, has boosted Hanover's ability to respond to emergencies and offer shelter during and after big storms.
From dispatcher to police chief
Sweeney also started his career in Hanover as a call firefighter, then moved to the police department to work as a dispatcher in 1978 while attending Stonehill College. In those days, there was a special line for emergencies because 911 had not been implemented. Sweeney would dispatch firefighters, police officers and ambulances.
By 1982, Sweeney was appointed as a full-time police officer and worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift until 1995, when he was promoted to sergeant after passing the required tests. He oversaw the detectives and made sure federal grants were accounted for.
In 1997, Sweeney was promoted to lieutenant, which made him second in command. He was appointed as police chief in 2008.
Sweeney said one of his biggest accomplishments was getting a school resource officer into the Hanover schools in 2015.
Sweeney has been focused dealing with substance abuse in the community, including the rollout of Narcan to officers. The drug, naloxone, temporarily reverses opioid overdoses. Sweeney has also been on the Plymouth County Outreach team since its founding, a collaboration of police departments focused on helping those with substance abuse disorder.
The last two years have been some of the hardest for Sweeney, he said, as he has steered his department through the pandemic, tried to prevent officers from getting sick, provided public safety to the community and worked with Blanchard and the fire department every step of the way.
Through it all, he would not have been able to do it without the support of his family as he missed games and recitals, plays and birthdays — all for his job.
"That support, it was important to my being able to totally commit to the job," Sweeney said. "In retirement, I plan to give back more to my family."
Preparing for the last shift
Sweeney and Blanchard said once they're off the clock for the last time, they'll be able to make some plans unrestricted by the job.
"We'll be able to get together, to eat, and not worry about who has to be close to town. We won't be," Sweeney said. Blanchard cut him off to finish the sentence, "interrupted, when we go with our wives' to dinner, because we've never been able to have a complete night out."
The town will celebrate Blanchard's retirement from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, at the John Curtis Free Library. Sweeney will be sent off Thursday, Dec. 16. Details are still being finalized.
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