Acton’s Fire Department to the Rescue

February 24, 2024
Fire Chief Anita Arnum
Chief Anita Arnum. Photo credit: Acton Fire Department

Fire Chief Anita Arnum and recently appointed Deputy Chief Chris Sammet have amassed 60 years of experience serving the Acton Fire Department. Through those years, they have not only fought fires but have helped people facing a variety of crises, ranging from injuries from a car accident to being locked out of their house. “You have to be a good problem solver,” says Arnum, the first woman to lead the department. “People call you at their worst moments. We didn’t create the situation, but we do everything we can to make it better, whether it be a medical emergency or a fire or something else.”

Arnum, who grew up in Sudbury, became the new permanent chief of the Acton Fire Department in October 2023 after serving as interim chief since the retirement of Chief Robert Hart in June. Although Arnum holds a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and chemistry from UMass Amherst and worked as a molecular biologist, her interest in firefighting was sparked by an emergency medicine technician (EMT) class and the TV show “Emergency.” She changed career directions and earned a B.A. degree in fire science at Anna Maria College. Later she graduated from the Chief Fire Officer Training Program at the UMass Donahue Institute. 

Arnum’s career as a firefighter in Acton began in 1989. Shortly after, in addition to her full-time job, she went to school to become a paramedic. Then she worked two jobs—as an Acton firefighter and, during her days off, as a paramedic at Emerson Hospital. (Acton’s fire department transitioned from basic to advanced life support in 2017.)  Also a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national search and rescue system, she aided victims of 9/11, multiple hurricanes, and mudslides. Her current role includes coordinating the department, developing guidelines and policies, managing grants, public speaking, and more. 

Deputy Chief Chris Sammet
Deputy Fire Chief Chris Sammet. Photo credit: Acton Fire Department.

Acton native Chris Sammet’s career path was more straightforward; he decided to become a firefighter after completing an internship in the fire service while at Acton-Boxborough High School. “I found a love for the job,” Sammet says. “I was able to get into the firehouse, go on calls, and meet a lot of great people. It was really my dream job.” 

After graduating from Middlesex Community College, Sammet attained his EMT certification and worked for a year at the Boxborough Fire Department. When he came to Acton, he climbed the ladder from lieutenant to captain and deputy chief. In this role he hires new personnel and helps oversee daily operations of the department. He also conducts safety inspections of construction, smoke detectors, oil burners, and solar panels. 

“The fire service is here to help people and work with them,” says Arnum. “If businesses are out of compliance with a code, we’re not going to give them a citation. We’ll say, ‘Let’s figure out how we can help you meet the code,’ and give them a time to meet it. It’s all about safety.”

These days, in addition to conventional tools like axes, hammers, and hoses, front-line engines and ladder trucks are equipped with thermal imaging cameras and battery-powered tools. “Going to battery has really been a huge change for us in the fire service,” says Sammet. “It gives us a lot more flexibility. Tools used to be attached to power plants by cords that could only go so far. Now we have battery-powered chain saws and light towers.“

Today’s firefighters provide medical care at an Advanced Life Support level, which requires extensive training, including a six-month internship with clinical rotations. (Arnum completed hers at Massachusetts General Hospital.) Working under the license of a physician, paramedics deliver urgent critical care. “Often treatment is done in a compressed time frame because someone’s life is at stake,” says Arnum, noting Acton Fire Department’s “amazing” staff of paramedics. “We’re bringing the emergency room to you,” she says.

The fire service operates four stations throughout the town, staffed by firefighter paramedics with a captain in charge of each 24-hour shift. Firefighters routinely train on skills, such as ice rescue, throwing ladders, and using aerial or pump apparatus. “The fire stations are our second home,” says Sammet. “We have meals there, and in down times, we rest.” 

When someone calls 911, the closest vehicle, with an EMT at a minimum, goes to the scene. A fire truck with a crew of two may arrive first, assess the situation, start treatment, alert the ambulance, and call for any additional resources. Other times, a police officer, already on the road, may respond first and relay information to the fire department. 

“Things are not always what they seem,” Arnum says. “We may have a call for a lift assist after a fall, and get there and find out it’s a cardiac arrest.”

Both Arnum and Sammet find their work challenging and rewarding. “There’s a great sense of service that goes with it,” says Arnum. “Sometimes it’s the little things like recovering a wedding album or saving a pet when there’s a fire.”

“It’s a great career,” Sammet says. “I just finished my 25th year, and I look forward to the future and trying to make the department grow.” 

Looking for a fire burning permit? You can now apply online at Acton Fire Department Permits.

Nancy Knoblock Hunton is a volunteer writer for Acton Exchange, specializing in profiles of people who have made contributions to the community.


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