That Frank Roma would spend his life as a firefighter was evident early on.
The retiring Hermon fire chief grew up in Springfield Township outside of Philadelphia near a fire station. When his mom heard the sirens, she would put the boy in the family car and follow the trucks to see where they went.
Roma, who will turn 66 later this month, even had a 1927 Hahn fire truck that he drove around his yard. He pulled on his first firefighter boots as a volunteer in 1974 before he turned 18.
Now, after six years as Hermon’s fire chief, he’s ready to take them off at the end of September and turn leadership duties over to his assistant chief, Cody Sullivan, who has been tapped to take on Roma’s duties.
“I’ve gone on thousands and thousands of calls and it’s not what people lost that I remember, it’s what we were able to save,” he said, “Whether that’s people or pets or we were able to salvage a wedding album or cards from their children, that has always been special for me.”
One of the greatest saves of Roma’s career came on July, 21, 2020, when Hermon firefighters helped rescue Eric Jabbusch, 52, of Greene who was pinned beneath 10,000 pounds of steel sheet pilings. Jabbush worked for H.B. Fleming of South Portland and was part of a crew working for Cianbro Corp. replacing a highway bridge in Hampden for the Maine Department of Transportation when the accident took place.
A year after Jabbusch nearly died, he and his family had an emotional reunion at the Hermon fire station with the first responders who saved his life. His pelvis was crushed and required multiple surgeries and “hardware” to repair it. Today, he walks with a cane and is blind as a result of the accident. His survival was so unlikely that Roma and his crew nicknamed Jabbusch “the Miracle Man.”
“I’ve been on some miraculous calls but I can’t remember one quite as miraculous as that,” Roma said Friday.
One of the biggest changes Roma’s seen over the year is a better understanding of the long-term health hazards firefighters face. A survivor of bladder cancer, Roma believes his diagnosis was related to his occupation.
“Back in the day, firefighters felt that the dirtier your turnout gear, the better you were at the job,” he said. “Now, we know that the gear traps a lot of carcenogenitors that we used to take home with us. Decontamination of gear is essential and the industry recognizes that.”
Recent studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health firefighter cancer and concluded that firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population in the United States.
Sullivan, 35, said that he hopes to emulate Roma’s leadership style as his successor.
“He puts the needs of others first and leads by example,” he said.
Hermon Town Council Chair Steve Thomas called Roma a “remarkable town leader, who always seemed to have the right words for recognizing success and comforting in times of loss. He developed not only a highly qualified fire fighting team, but a department equipped with the latest technology and equipment to assist Hermon residents in their time of need.”
Roma’s first full-time job as a firefighter was in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Two years later, he became the deputy director of training for the Montgomery County training academy. From there he went to Mankato, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.
In 1991, Roma went south to McKinney, Texas, located north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis. A fast growing suburb, the population of McKinney was about 30,000 when he arrived and about 50,000 when he retired 20 years later. Over those two decades, the McKinney Fire Department grew from 29 full-time employees in two stations to 150 firefighters in nine stations.
Roma retired to Maine in 2012, where he’d vacationed in the summer as a child and an adult.
“I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon [on July 20, 1969] while on vacation in Maine,” he said. “I went to the Hurricane Outward Bound School and I sent my kids there.”
Roma served as chief of the Auburn Fire Department from 2012 to 2015, when the city purchased its own ambulances and ended its contract with a private firm. It was a controversial decision in the community opposed by a local hospital, the fire chief said.
In 2015, Roma refused to fire his administrative staff as part of proposed budget cuts and offered to leave himself to save their jobs.
“At the end of the day, we are in the people business,” he said Friday. “Our job is taking care of people in the community and the people who serve them.”
Roma, who lives in Glenburn, was hired as the Hermon chief in 2016. Now, he’s retiring — for good this time — after nearly half a century as a firefighter.
“I’m not getting any younger and I’ve always admired people who went out when they still had game,” he said.
His biggest regret about leaving is that he won’t be chief when the new fire truck arrives next year. It was scheduled to arrive July 1 but supply chain disruptions caused delays.
Once he retires, Roma will have more time to spend on his campaign for the Maine House of Representatives. The fire chief is the Democratic candidate seeking to unseat Republican Rep. Abigail Griffin of Levant, a retired teacher. The district is made up of Glenburn, Levant and Kenduskeag.
Roma also is in training to become a court-appointed special advocate of children in child protective cases.
“I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given to serve,” he said. “This career has been a perfect fit for me. The people I’ve worked with made it a blessing for me. At the end of the day, when I hang up my boots, it’s the people I’ll miss.”