Fire Chief Ronald Kanterman: Safety will be top priority

It should be no surprise that fighting fires has been a near-lifelong pursuit for Wilton Fire Chief Ronald Kanterman. Since he first joined a fire brigade in his teenage years, the newly named chief has never left the profession.

“This is my lifelong passion,” the chief said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old when I was on a seasonal fire brigade in upstate New York. The camp staff put a little brigade together for brush fires and things like that, and the rest is history.”

Originally hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., Chief Kanterman got his start “on the line” in his home city before quickly moving into a nine-year stint with New York’s Fire Prevention Bureau.

“It allowed me to go to school at night to get advanced degrees, and it taught me the basics of fire prevention, and the science of fire prevention” the chief said. “A situation in New York could run the gamut from the bulk storage of fuel to high-rise office buildings.”

Now, after 25 years of experience as the fire chief at Merck’s corporate headquarters in New Jersey, and with the Mohegan Tribe in northeast Connecticut, he’s taken a role as the new head of Wilton’s firefighters.

Safety is the chief’s number one priority while running the department in Wilton, which he characterized as a highly cohesive and dedicated unit.

“My goal is get my guys home at 7 a.m. every day, and to help them do their job in the street. If they’re being taken care of, the people in town are being taken care of. They’re dedicated to the job and to the people in this town.”

Speaking on that dedication, Chief Kanterman said a comment from a young member of the department during his first day on the job reinforced his understanding of Wilton firefighters.

“He said, ‘I don’t mean to interrupt you, Chief, but even though we are here nine days a month, we are Wilton firefighters every day.’”

In addition to safety, Chief Kanterman says he prides himself on being an effective, balanced leader who sets out each day to maintain the standards of an already excellent department.

Importantly, he believes in trusting his fellow firefighters.

“I’ve been teaching leadership for 15 years, and I have my own philosophies on what good leadership it. I like to believe I can give my people the benefit of the doubt because they’re working professionals. I talk to them, not at them.”

Though fire chiefs once were, essentially, in charge of the fire department and going out on calls, the Wilton chief says the role has changed greatly during his 38 years on the job.

“It’s a lot more administrative work than it once was. You have to balance your time between the firefighters on the floor, town hall, budgets, and strategic planning of things like apparatus purchases,” he said.

“You have to strike a good balance because you don’t want to hear that your guys never see the chief, or that they feel the chief isn’t around. I always say, the guys are my first customers in the morning.”

Because the physical demands of firefighting are extreme, the chief also took a moment to praise the department’s existing wellness and fitness program.

“The Wilton guys have a phenomenal wellness and fitness program,” he said. “There are no fat firefighters here. When everyone is in great shape, you increase your safety and when you are physically fit, you feel better.

“Firefighting is extremely hard, physically taxing work. A fire lieutenant once told me we are like professional athletes, but we never know when game day is.”

Of his first major Wilton fire, which took out a garage on Hurlbutt Street last week, his first words were praise for the quick action of the first firemen on scene.

“This was the first fire I caught with them, and they did a great job. The fire never got into the house. I went into the house just after the fire and you would never know there was a fire in the attached garage.”

This first experience proved to him, he said, that Wilton firefighters take great pride in training for situations just like this one.