Attorney leaves legal career to fight fires

Wilton’s newest firefighter is one in 500. Actually, make that “number one” of 500.

Gary Mandel, of Ridgefield, finished first out of 500 applicants to secure a firefighter’s job with the Wilton Fire Department.

After graduating from the Connecticut Fire Academy in December, he is now going through five weeks of orientation and on-the-job training at Wilton fire headquarters.

“Being a firefighter is the greatest job in the world,” Mandel said in an interview with The Bulletin.

The Wilton firefighter job was a definitive job choice for Mandel who left behind Brooks Brothers suits and a successful career as a New York corporate attorney in order to don 40 pounds of turnout gear and hunker down in Station 1 overnight, ready to respond to fire calls as they come in.

“I’ve always had an interest in firefighting and a desire to help the community,” Mandel said about his career change.

While it is a bit unexpected to see a lawyer become a firefighter, it is even more unexpected to learn that Mandel is starting this new phase of his career at the age of 55. “I’ll be 56 next month,” he said.

“He’s the world’s oldest rookie,” joked Wilton Fire Chief Ronald Kanterman.

But Mandel’s age may have been a positive factor for his top ranking of firefighter contenders.

When Wilton was looking for a new firefighter last summer it joined in with 10 other towns and formed a consortium to attract a joint pool of candidates.

The search was successful, yielding 500 applicants. Applicants were then given a written test, followed by an oral test (interview) with a three-member panel of Fairfield County fire professionals.

Mandel did very well on the written test and in the interview. When the scores for all the applicants were tallied, he ranked number one.

“The maturity of a guy like Gary, that’s what comes to the table, his life experience. He finished number one for a reason,” Kanterman said.

In addition to his maturity, Mandel also has some practical experience. For the past five years, he has juggled his professional legal career with being an unpaid member of the Ridgefield Volunteer Fire Department.

Mandel got the idea to volunteer in Ridgefield after receiving a fund-raising flier from the department. “There was a small box at the bottom that said to check it if you are interested in volunteering, so I thought why not, and did it,” he said.

During his five years of service in Ridgefield, Mandel achieved the rank of lieutenant. “I really liked the community service aspect of being a volunteer firefighter in my community,” he said.

The positive experience led Mandel to take the next step to becoming a full-time paid professional firefighter, and giving up his law practice.

Following the consortium search process, members of the Wilton Fire Commission, the fire chief and selectmen chose eight candidates to interview and the commission offered the position to Mandel in August. He then attended the Connecticut Fire Academy in Windsor Locks for 15 weeks.

Mandel is filling a vacancy in the department left by the retirement of Capt. Jim Gies. A veteran Wilton firefighter will be promoted to the captain’s position, while Mandel assumes a role on the firefighting line.

The schedule of a Wilton firefighter is not like a typical 9 to 5 job because the fire department covers the town 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Wilton’s 24 firefighters are divided into four six-person groups, labeled A, B, C, and D. Each group works a shift of 24 hours on and then takes the next 72 hours off.

The job requires a lot of strength and stamina, which Mandel has in droves. Fit and trim, Mandel acknowledges he is a gym rat. “Yep, I’m that guy,” he said.

Mandel works out regularly, does weight training and cardio and has competed in short sprint triathlons.

Mandel can keep up with men half his age and discovered his fitness ethic was quite useful at the fire academy where intense physical training was a daily part of the routine. “It’s a very similar experience to military boot camp,” Kanterman said.

Brooklyn guy

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Mandel is proud of his background, and is no slouch when it comes to hard work.

He graduated from Brooklyn College, and went to school at night to earn an M.B.A. from Pace University. He then went to St. John’s law school at night and earned a law degree with honors. He is also a certified public accountant.

Mandel worked as a tax attorney for Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York City, where he became a partner in 2003. From 2007 to 2018, he was named to the Super Lawyers top attorneys list. He was also an adjunct professor at Columbia and New York law schools.

While Mandel may have a lot to be proud of professionally, he is even more proud of being the father of two daughters. Joliette, 22, has just started teaching fourth grade in the Bronx. Jacqueline, 20, is attending the State University of New York in Buffalo, “It’s Jacqueline’s birthday today,” he said beaming like a happy dad.

“I’m so glad to be working in Wilton and getting to know the town. You don’t realize at first how spread out it is, and there are some narrow streets. But it’s a nice mixture of residences and businesses and I truly enjoy getting up and getting here every day,” Mandel said.