Pete Soons, left, and Doug Babcock enjoy a laugh together outisde the Robert Sutton Fire and Rescue Station recently. (Photo by Brian MacDonald)
Leadership of Saint Michael’s College’s safety and emergency response agencies has a new look, both in structure and personnel.
For more than 20 years, Pete Soons ’82 held the dual-role of Public Safety director (in charge of the 15-plus-person campus security force) and chief of the college’s student-manned Fire and Rescue Squads. But duties for each growing agency vastly expanded through the years, says the 56-year-old Soons -- so when he decided recently to retire, he recommended naming three separate new chiefs: one for Fire, one for Rescue, and one for public safety.
As a result, this past summer veteran squad members and alumni Erik Haversang ’11 of Fire and Leslie Lindquist ’05 of Rescue took over the top posts in their respective operations; and in early September, former Essex Police Sgt. Doug Babcock became director of public safety.
Babcock, a longtime Vermont resident and a New Jersey native, says he’s looking forward to systemically advancing campus safety from the position of a wider-lens manager rather than responding “one emergency at a time,” as he has done capably for decades in a wide range of venues and scenarios: EMT for 24 years, firefighter for 5 years and law enforcement work for 13 years, preceded by service in the Coast Guard.
His military service directly followed earning an English degree at Lyndon State in the early 1990s. “I like to say I majored in Rescue and got an English degree along the way,” says Babcock, who also more recently completed Champlain College’s online MBA program with an eye to “larger policy and larger program management” positions in his specialty areas.
Babcock says that in many emergencies, the real “first-responders” either are the people experiencing the emergency or those who might come upon it to call it in. And while most folks know to call 911, too few have the right mindset or preparation for improving their odds of a best outcome as they wait for skilled responders like Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue to arrive and apply more advanced skills.
“You might have anywhere from 3 minutes if you’re on campus to as much as 20 minutes if you’re out hiking in a more remote area, to figure out how to survive on your own,” Babcock says. “But since that’s not a mindset too many people are raised with, it’s something I’m going to promote very strongly as part of the mission of the public safety organization here.”
He wants students to become more-involved partners in their own personal safety and the safety of the wider campus community. Programming and ongoing constructive conversations between safety leaders and students are a good place to start, says Babcock, who on a recent Monday stayed into the early evening of a long day to help out with a women’s “RAD” self-defense program offered at Robert Sutton Fire and Rescue Station, located across Route 15 from the main campus entrance -- headquarters since 2005 for Fire and Rescue while also housing Public Safety and dispatch/switchboard.
When Babcock saw the Saint Michael’s public safety job advertised this summer while he was still working for Essex Police, it seemed to him the ideal chance to apply his years of varied experiences and organizational leadership training for a community he already knew and admired. He also runs a security-consulting firm for small and medium businesses that he plans to continue as time permits.
Babcock has been “running Rescue” as a certified EMT since he was a 16-year-old high school student in northern New Jersey, where frequently he would be on calls into rough neighborhoods engaging challenging scenarios, so he learned a lot fast and knew he liked the work. Based on those experiences, he sought colleges with rescue squads, which Lyndon State offered; but he says that more than anything, billboards—or the lack thereof due to Vermont’s rare state law banning them -- attracted him to seek a school in the Green Mountain state. “I wanted to come to a state that respected the environment and the community that much,” he says.
He loved coming to know the people and landscapes of the Northeast Kingdom communities he served during college, and grew increasingly attached to Vermont. “I believe in civil service and public service,” says Babcock, who also understood that his personality was best suited to the Coast Guard among the service branches. He served four years with postings in Texas and Washington State while also doing hospital emergency-room work. Upon discharge, he returned to Vermont to work for the ground transport team at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Professional connections there led him to Essex Rescue squad and eventually to that town’s police force. He’s been a Police Academy instructor, death investigator, part-time officer for other local towns, the emergency management director in his hometown of Cambridge, a Lamoille County Sheriff’s Deputy and a Cambridge Planning Commission member -- all the while running rescue for Essex as needed and when able.
For a time in the mid part of the previous decade at the suggestion of an Essex Rescue friend, Babcock even “ran” with the Saint Michael’s Rescue crew periodically for a few years, starting in the old bare-bones station behind Salmon Hall and continuing through the move over to the Sutton station in 2005 -- so he has known and appreciated SMFR Founder Don “Pappy” Sutton going back to that time, and also through work they have shared at the local fairgrounds. “It’s a great tradition Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue has,” he says.
He has a clear vision for the direction of Public Safety. “We’re really hoping to be a pro-active safety organization and really not be known as ‘Security’ and not be mission-oriented to enforcement,” says Babcock, who has been impressed by the network, connections and protocols for handling campus issues internally that already are in place, with provisions for bringing in outside agencies as needed, but not as the first step in every incident.
Both he and Soons say the leadership transition has been smooth and productive, with the soon-departing director still coming in to offer support and guidance. “This has been probably the most wonderful process I can imagine for transitioning and leadership in a directorship position,” Babcock says. “Pete is very connected and understanding of the system, as well as a beloved and respected leader.” As they’ve been making typical rounds together in recent weeks, the new director has watched and learned from Soons, who offers suggestions, background and ideas in an effectively low-key way that Babcock appreciates. “The whole community of Saint Mike’s is so incredibly welcoming,” he says.
In just a few weeks, he has quickly learned that his Mondays typically center on the perhaps handful of student conduct meetings that often follow a college weekend -- but those conversations he views less as disciplinary actions than as “a learning opportunity, a growth moment and in some cases a healing opportunity, versus the old idea I had in a traditional police officer role that you give it to the police and they go investigate it and do something right away. But that’s not the only way there is to do it.” He says he also already has had to handle several press inquiries about local or national stories involving public safety matters that have been interesting, and which he feels have gone well. Babcock also has enjoyed interactions with students both from the Fire and Rescue Squads, and just from walking around campus, and says he long has felt an affinity for connecting with and understanding the challenges and possibilities facing young adults in the college age-range.
Says Soons: “We’re working together on a daily basis, taking things in small pieces. I’ll continue to support Fire and Rescue, even when I’m done, as we count on all or our alumni to do. I’ll probably stay involved to help trouble-shoot and maintain the [building-access] system on campus that I helped to bring in here as well.” Soons also will continue to work as a Winooski police officer as he has done part-time for 17 years, “and focus more on some projects at home,” along with his wife, Katheryn Tobin Soons ’92, a fellow Saint Michael’s and Rescue alum who is still deeply involved in the field locally.
Through his years of leadership, Soons says he feels best about achieving -- day-by-day for so many years running -- the single daily measure of success that trumps most others for an emergency responder:
“We all go home.”