In 1973 when Jim Snow applied to join the Sebago Fire Department he was accepted as a volunteer without any big fuss. After all, Jim had grown up in Sebago and everyone in town knew him. Like the rest of the firefighters he trained with the fire department and responded to fires when the alarm went off. No one in our little town paid any particular attention to the fact that Jim was deaf.
If Sebago had known 31 years ago that Jim was one of the first deaf firefighters in the country, and almost certainly the first one in Maine, it probably would not have struck them as anything unusual. After all, Jim was just one of the community who was giving of his time and himself to help protect the town and its citizens. He had a handicap, but he had learned to overcome the handicap and had adapted to it. What his fellow firefighters valued were his technical skills as a heavy equipment operator, his positive "can do" attitude, and his dedication. In a small town, willing volunteers are precious and their contribution is appreciated.
Jim (62) has been deaf since he was a baby, when he contracted measles from his sisters and then meningitis. He graduated from the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Portland and from high school at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. That was where he met his future wife Bonnie. At their home in Sebago they raised three sons, all of whom have normal hearing. Jim retired from the Maine DOT after a 31-year career as a heavy equipment operator. He keeps active as a trail groomer for the Sebago Branch Duckers snowmobile club, doing landscaping, backhoeing and cutting firewood.
Jim shares his passion as a volunteer firefighter with the dedication to educate the hearing so that they can communicate with the deaf community. For 15 years he has taught American Sign Language (ASL) classes through the Lake Region Adult Education and the Windham Adult Education programs. I was one of 10 students to take an ASL course from Jim at Windham last winter. After the first class the sign language interpreter left, and we were left alone with only Jim to teach us. Jim communicated with our class of hearing students without speaking and with humor and put us all at ease. Jim's capability to overcome and adapt is truly amazing, and he uses it to good effect as a firefighter as well as in the classroom. On a rescue call a couple of years ago involving two deaf persons in Sebago, Jim used his signing skills and firefighter training to calm the victims and help resolve the situation successfully.
In 2000, John Duchesne joined the Sebago Fire Department as our second deaf firefighter. John was motivated to join when his wife Deronda was injured in a serious car accident. She survived only through the timely intervention of local fire and rescue personnel. Joining the department was his way of giving something back to his community. John (39) graduated from Baxter School for the Deaf in 1984. It was there that he met Deronda. They have lived in Sebago for more than 16 years and have a son and daughter, both of whom have normal hearing. John worked at the US Post Office for 12 ½ years and is now retired on a disability. He sells firewood and does landscaping.
Both Jim and John wear alphanumeric pagers set on vibrate. When a fire call is toned out to the rest of the fire department, a text message is sent to their pagers to alert them to the call. They are able to learn where and what type of fire or emergency is involved. On scene both Jim's son Glenn, a Sebago Fire Captain, and Fire Chief Ken Littlefield are fluent in ASL and can issue commands to Jim and John as to what needs to be done. Several of the firefighters have also learned to communicate with them as well. Over the years Jim and John have been two of the town's most active and reliable volunteer firefighters. Last year, for example, there were only two other firefighters who responded to more calls than they did.
Neither Jim nor John are rated for interior fire attack, a limitation that they have voluntarily set on themselves so that their handicap does not endanger themselves or their fellow firefighters. Instead, they provide a vital exterior support role at fires. Jim usually drives one of the fire engines or tankers. Over the years Jim has proven himself as a reliable driver of the big water tank trucks and is good at shuttling water to rural locations, so important in this area of few hydrants. John provides critical assistance at fires and car accidents, and helps with tools, replacing air bottles on the SCBA's, running hoses, etc.
Before 1997 there were only 23 known deaf or hearing-impaired firefighters or EMTs in all of the US. Canada wasn't much different, with Nova Scotia's first deaf firefighter only starting in 1992 and Ontario in 1997. In 1997, a lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prompted an agreement in Tennessee that resulted in hearing-impaired paramedic being hired for the first time.
In 1998 similar ADA actions in Maryland and Virginia resulted in changes allowing deaf and hearing-impaired firefighters and EMTs to join local departments. Today the number around the country has increased, in part due to the law, and also to improved technology, but it is still small.
Sebago still bears the distinction of having one of the first deaf firefighters in the country and having done so from a sense of community and local pride, and recognizing that each individual has unique strengths. Jim and John's desire to contribute to their community is really far more important than any handicap, after all, isn't it?
Article and photos by Allen Crabtree
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on April 22, 2004 under the title "Deaf firefighters not hampered by lack of hearing".
Last updated May 15, 2004