Retiring firefighter reflects on 40 years serving Wilton

Karl Dolnier likes to joke that when he joined the Wilton Fire Department there were still horses pulling the trucks.

In actuality, the horses were long gone, but the Fire Department was all-volunteer and housed in a former carriage house.

Things have changed since 1967, and now one more thing has changed. After 41 years on the job, Mr. Dolnier, who achieved the rank of captain, retired on Nov. 30, a week shy of his 62nd birthday, the mandatory retirement age for firefighters.

It was not his choice.

"I would have stayed a few more years," he said.

Capt. Dolnier, who grew up on Kent Road and has lived in Wilton his entire life, joined the Fire Department at age 17 with three friends, all students at Wilton High School.

"Initially it was something exciting to do, something to get you out of the house. ... The trucks interested me," he said.

After graduation he enrolled at Quinnipiac University and continued to work as a volunteer, eventually being hired on as a part-time mechanic for the three engines and two trucks, although there were no ladder trucks.

"They were all obsolete," he said of the trucks.

During the ensuing three years the department took on four to five career firefighters and got a career chief in 1970, according to Capt. Dolnier.

"In November of 1971, I quit college in my senior year," he said last week with a laugh. "I had majored in business administration, but I knew I didn't want to do that."

What he wanted to do was be a firefighter, and Nov. 1, 1971, was his first full-time shift. It was literally a baptism of fire.

"We had a pretty major fire at what is now Middlebrook School," he said. In those days, firefighters worked two shifts — 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. — and then locked up at 11.

The call came in at 1 a.m. "We responded to that. That was my first fire working," he said.

Capt. Dolnier said back then there were many more structure fires than there are now.

"In the 60s and 70s we'd get one serious fire a month," he said.

Training back then was informal.

"You'd throw up ladders, squirt a hose," he said.

Before he was hired full-time, he was asked to fill in when the career firefighters went to New Haven for training.

"They said, 'There's the phone, there's the truck. You'll know what to do.'

"We had a fire and we put it out, so I guess we knew what to do," he said.

In addition to training, one big change Capt. Dolnier has seen over the years is in firefighter safety.

"When I started, you just ran into a building. We didn't think about going into fires alone," he said.

Today, firefighters go into a building in twos, and there are two more outside.

"We don't go into abandoned buildings; we don't risk our lives just for property," he said.

Equipment has also improved tremendously. The trucks are better equipped and faster. Thermal imaging cameras help firefighters see through thick smoke. Personal gear is safer and lighter than it used to be.

Living and working in the same town has its good and bad aspects.

On the one hand, he said, "it's nice to drive down a street and see a house that was on fire and is still standing" because of firefighters' efforts to extinguish it.

But three to four years ago, he said, "I had three to four people I knew, all of whom died, and I was at all the scenes."

You never know

A big part of the appeal of his job was never knowing what the day was going to bring.

"I always like to think when people run out of options they turn to the Fire Department. We'll do our best to help out.

"Broken water pipe, cat up a tree, dog in a culvert, we'll give it our best shot."

That being the nature of the job, Capt. Dolnier was hard-pressed to think of any unusual calls.

"We had an iguana up a tree instead of a cat," he offered. They got it down using a ground ladder.

"We've had deer stuck in pools and fences, a commercial lawn mower in the bottom of a swimming pool.

"Kids with their heads stuck in bannister railings, that's pretty common.

"We did have a cat in the dash of a car," he said, adding that most of the "odder" calls involved animals.

As captain he is a shift supervisor, but he said he prefers "being inside on the hose line rather than outside.

"If you put the fire out, that takes care of all the other things."

Firefighters have had to rescue people from fires only three to four times, according to Capt. Dolnier. "We've been fortunate," he said.

More common is extricating people from vehicles.

"I've done dozens and dozens and dozens of those," he said. "When I first started, we just had a jack. Now we can tear a car apart in minutes."

In the late 60s, when hot-rodding was a popular pastime, "once a month we'd be getting kids out" of their cars, he said. "Kids don't do that anymore."

On his last 24-hour shift, firefighters, town employees and friends came by to wish him well.

In an email to The Bulletin, fire Chief Paul Milositz said, "Capt. Dolnier has served the Wilton Fire Department and the Town of Wilton from the very beginning of the career fire service in Wilton. He served for some 40 plus years, through good times and bad, always supporting the department and advocating for ever better service to the community.

"He is the model of what a great firefighter and officer should be and his career has been the stuff of Wilton Fire Department legend. We are certainly a much better department for having him as a member."

At fire headquarters, Ralph Nathanson, the department's apparatus supervisor, said Capt. Dolnier's strength was "the calm" he brought to every situation. "Everyone knows if you are there everything will be fine."

Capt. Dolnier attributed it to experience. "Years ago, you had to do everything yourself." Then, as the department grew, they worked together as a team.

Both men recalled the fire at the Wilton Crest condos in May, which they said could easily have spread throughout the complex.

"Six guys did the work of 20 in containing that fire," Mr. Nathanson said of Wilton's first responders. "The other departments" — those that supplied mutual aid — "were amazed at what they did."

Turning his attention back to Capt. Dolnier, Mr. Nathanson said, "He'll be missed."

Capt. Dolnier's last shift on the job was passing quietly. By Thursday afternoon only two calls had come in: a minor car accident and a carbon monoxide alarm.