Since he became chief of the Manchester Fire Department in late 2016, the stress of dealing with the compounding community crises of addiction, homelessness and COVID-19 has been eating at Daniel Goonan.
The job’s toll has become clear to his family, Goonan said Saturday, and even his 9-year-old children were worried about him.
“When my daughter brings back a pamphlet about ‘square breathing’ that she got in school, and says ‘Dad, I think you need this,’ it’s time to go,” Goonan said.
Goonan has notified Mayor Joyce Craig that he plans to retire April 30.
The chief has no definite retirement plans beyond spending time with his family, though he said he had a few “irons in the fire” with addiction and homelessness advocacy groups. He wants to find a way to keep working on addiction issues and keep working with people.
He did not rule out getting involved in city politics, as his father did after retiring from the police department, serving on the planning board and as an alderman.
“That’s something I’d love to entertain sometime,” Goonan said.
But Goonan said he remembered what his father told him as he was dying: that time with loved ones was most important, even more important than the ethic of service Goonan and his father shared.
“Danny, this is what’s important, and life is too short,” Goonan’s father told him.
Goonan said he always wanted to find a way to serve Manchester, his hometown. At 21, he took both the police and fire exams. Goonan’s father, then a city police lieutenant, told him to join the fire department.
“All the police officers wanted to be firemen,” Goonan said his father told him.
Goonan became a firefighter in 1984.
“I had about a week of training, and next thing you’re on a fire truck,” Goonan said. “It was an extremely fun place to work and grow up and experience everything.”
An all-crisis operation
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the fire department focused on putting out fires, remembered James Burkush, who preceded Goonan as fire chief. The department had no role in emergency management and certainly did not concern itself with homelessness and addiction.
“I’ve tried to move the department forward to be that complete, all-hazard, all-emergency, all-crisis kind of operation,” Goonan said. “Anything that comes the city’s way.”
By February 2015, it was clear the biggest crisis facing the city was opioids, after three people died of overdoses in Manchester in one week that month.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” Goonan, then deputy fire chief, said in 2015.
The numbers kept climbing, but Goonan pushed the fire department to pitch in.
“Without much thinking, we jumped right in and offered our assistance,” Goonan said.
Working with Chris Hickey, Manchester’s Emergency Services Coordinator, Goonan pushed for the “Safe Station” program. Through Safe Station, anyone who wanted help with a substance-use issue could walk into a fire station at any time of the day or night and be connected right away with treatment resources. To date, the Safe Stations have fielded more than 7,600 requests for help.
Advocating for people struggling with substance use, mental health and homelessness remained Goonan’s focus since former Mayor Ted Gatsas appointed him chief in 2016 — and this work has meant wading into politics. Alongside Craig, Goonan has pressed the state to take greater responsibility for New Hampshire’s homeless population.
When Gov. Chris Sununu criticized the city’s response to homelessness last fall, Goonan pushed back — hard. “To put it frankly, I think there’s a lot of crap in there, a lot of spin,” Goonan said in October. “I feel like I’m in a Gov. Sununu spin cycle right now.”
On Saturday, Goonan said he used to worry about saying the wrong thing. But he said he has let his passion for the fire department’s work guide him.
“I always tried to stand my ground, and to hell with the politics,” Goonan said.
A difficult year
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Goonan said it was natural for the fire department to step in, working with the city health department and emergency operations center in the chaotic early days, figuring out how to ensure the safety of residents and those living in shelters and sleeping in camps around the city.
In the summer of 2020, said Alderman Bill Barry, Goonan’s concern for people experiencing homelessness was clear. Visiting camps with Goonan, Barry said the chief knew many residents by name, and he felt the respect they had for Goonan.
Burkush said Goonan leads by example, especially in his work to help people struggling with addiction and homelessness. “He didn’t deal with it from behind the desk. He went out into the community and advocated.”
The city has grown to rely on Goonan jumping into problem after problem, and many are surprised and saddened to hear of his retirement.
At-Large Alderman Joseph Kelly Levasseur has butted heads with Goonan over the Safe Station program — Levasseur has advocated for the city to end it, arguing it’s too much of a draw for people from outside Manchester — but Levasseur said Saturday he knew Goonan had the city’s best interests at heart.
“By nature, firefighters will take on any challenge that we’re faced with,” Burkush said. “That’s part of who we are.”
But taking on so much has taken its toll, Goonan said Saturday.
“2020 was a very difficult year for the department,” Goonan said. “And a lot of stress for the guy at the top, I can tell you that. When it starts affecting the way you are, and the family starts noticing, you’ve got to start thinking about the next chapter.”