Roger Audette, 55, is set to retire Dec. 11 as the fire chief in Augusta. He is shown Friday at the Hartford Fire Station in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — After his planned departure was delayed by a few months due to the coronavirus pandemic, Roger Audette, the longest-tenured fire chief in Augusta history, is finally set to retire.

Audette had initially planned to retire last spring. When the pandemic hit, however, he did not feel the time was right for him to leave the job so he could focus on building up his family’s construction business.

“COVID hit, so moving into construction and retiring just didn’t seem right at the time,” said Audette, 55. “I wanted to be part of the response.”

Ward 4 City Councilor Eric Lind said Audette’s leadership during the onset of the pandemic — which included enacting an emergency plan to keep city employees and residents safe, and response procedures for public safety workers — was a calming source of reassurance for residents.

“His ability to be decisive, make some tough calls and remain focused, and his composure, aided the city tremendously,” Lind said. “He had a calming effect, he’s calm and cool. That’s a great leadership trait.”

Chief Roger Audette of the Augusta Fire Department walks through the debris of a building that burned at the American Tissue mill complex May 15, 2006, in Augusta. Audette, 55, is set to retire Dec. 11 as fire chief. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

Wanting to help out is a trait every firefighter likely has, Audette said. Asked what he will miss most about the job, he answered easily: The people with whom he has worked and the excitement inherent in a job involving responding to emergencies.

“As a firefighter, I always enjoy going out on calls,” said Audette, whose last day as Augusta chief is set for Dec. 11. “It’s not that you want something bad to happen, but if something happens, every firefighter wants to be there to help out.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said Audette has guided the Fire Department with a strong and steady hand, while maintaining the respect and loyalty of members of the department.

Fire and emergency medical services, Bridgeo said, “is a high pressure, critical public safety operation, and it takes a very special combination of personal qualities to succeed in leading such an operation.”

“Roger is recognized in house and statewide as the epitome of that class of leaders,” Bridgeo said.

Bridgeo said the Fire Department has a statewide reputation for excellence, and the city will have no trouble recruiting its next chief. He said the city will conduct a statewide search, but it also has “within the department, individuals with demonstrated leadership experience and skills who will be encouraged to apply.”

Bridgeo said he anticipated nominating Audette’s successor by year’s end. That person’s name and credentials will go to the Augusta City for consideration and confirmation.

One longtime member of the department, Deputy Chief David Groder, confirmed he plans to apply for the chief’s job.

Groder said Audette has been good to work for and a great mentor.

“Overall, I’d say he’s had a good working relationship with everybody,” Groder said of Audette. “He’s always had the citizens in mind, and has been a great emergency management guy for the pandemic. Everything is settled. Policies are in place. So it should be an easier transition for whoever slides in.”

The number of COVID-19 cases nationwide and in Maine has jumped recently. Audette said he was confident the city is in a position to deal with it, but warned against complacency.

“We are worried about the rise in cases. We’re bracing ourselves, just like everybody is,” Audette said. “I hope nobody has the comfort to say they’re 100% ready. You should always be thinking about the next step. Keep asking: ‘Are we doing enough? What can we do better?'”

Audette said the biggest fire during his tenure as chief was likely the blaze that destroyed an 18-unit apartment building at 36 Northern Ave. in 2014, leaving 27 residents homeless.

He said one of his most intense — but rewarding — calls came in about 1997, when he was a firefighter and paramedic. A tractor-trailer had rolled over on Interstate 95 and caught on fire. The driver was killed, but a 5-year-old boy was still alive and trapped inside the sleeper behind the cab, unable to escape.

Audette said the truck was upside down and on fire, and most of the firefighters were standing in diesel fuel on the road as they worked to cut through the truck to free the boy.

Audette said the department has undergone many changes during his tenure. He said he is proudest of:

• The 2017 construction of a new fire and rescue station to serve the busy North Augusta area.

• The 2019 major renovation and expansion of the city’s headquarters at the historic Hartford Station.

• The addition of more rescue workers including enough to staff a third ambulance around the clock.

• Adding a deputy chief’s position.

• Major upgrades to equipment and fire and rescue vehicles.

Audette, who was hired in 1993 and served as a battalion chief from 2001 to 2005, when he became chief, said the city’s firefighters “are the best in the world, so it’s easy to represent them when they go out and do wonderful things everyday, helping people and saving lives.”

Audette said Augusta has been a great place to work. He said the Fire Department has received strong support from Bridgeo, recently retired Ralph St. Pierre, the former finance director and assistant city manager, and from city councilors.

Audette, who lives in Readfield, said he is retiring to join — on a more regular basis — his sons Corey and Alex in the family’s construction business, which he started in 1988.

Audette also plans to rejoin the Winthrop Fire Department — where he was chief before taking the top job in Augusta. In Winthrop, Audette will fight fires alongside his son, Alex.

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