Wilton fire chief is sworn in

After a swearing-in ceremony on Friday, Oct. 23, Wilton Fire Chief Ronald Kanterman said to a small gathering of supporters, “There has never been a day in my life I was not happy to go to work.”

After more than 40 years in the fire service, Kanterman was sworn in Friday morning as Wilton’s fifth career fire chief. He has been interim chief for 16 months.

The ceremony was marked with a bagpipe procession, a prayer by Father Reggie Norman who invoked the blessings of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, and remarks by fire commission chair Gary Mecozzi and First Selectman Bill Brennan.

After an extensive search that took up the second half of 2013 and first half of 2014, the commission decided to go with an interim chief and charged Kanterman with three goals:

  • Fill an empty lieutenant’s position;

  • Start renovations on the Ridgefield Road firehouse;

  • Improve issues with dispatch.

“You did two out of three,” Mecozzi said, looking at Kanterman. “Ron did other things,” he added, including promoting three more lieutenants, a fire marshal, and hiring four firefighters with a procedure new to the town that saved nearly $250,000.

In addition, he has updated safety and training and has expanded the department’s relationship with public and private schools in town.

When his term expired, Mecozzi said, the commission unanimously decided to offer him the permanent position.

“Ron is a leader. I believe he’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” he said.

First Selectman Bill Brennan joked “it is easier to become elected first selectman than to become a fire chief.”

More seriously, he added, “the fire service keeps us safe. There are 18,000 people in the town of Wilton who depend on our emergency responders.”

Remarking on the emergency drill completed on Oct. 21, he said, “when I see how well our fire service, police and CERT teams all work together … when we do have a real emergency, we’re ready for them.”

Deputy Chief Mark Amatrudo then told the scores of guests who filled a large portion of the fire garage that Kanterman’s interest in fire service began when he was a boy scout, and by age 18 he was learning to be a firefighter at a firehouse in Brooklyn that served Canarsie and Brownsville.

“It was the 1970s,” he said, “and everything in New York was burning.”

Kanterman became a fire inspector in 1980 and pursued a master’s degree in fire protection management. After three promotions, he left the FDNY Fire Prevention Bureau to become assistant chief of an industrial fire department in New Jersey that served Merck & Co.

When that department was downsized, he moved to the Mohegan Tribal Fire Department and served as chief from 2009 to 2014, and then came to wilton.

In addition, Kanterman has been an adjunct professor of fire science and emergency management at several community colleges and universities and is now associated with the University of New Haven. He is also a volunteer with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Moving off script, Amatrudo recalled how the chief moved in with “about 30 boxes” of plaques, and needed to be reminded “we don’t have any boulevards and not that many avenues.”

He noted Kanterman’s “undying devotion to the Yankees” adding that the chief’s wife, Fran, is a Mets fan.

More seriously, he noted Kanterman’s insistence on training. “It must be planned, focused and done every day.”

In a few final thoughts on the chief, he commented on the role of a chief.

“Chief officers have a unique relationship with their firefighters. We can’t work successfully without each other. We’re not always friends because there’s too much at stake, but our respect and trust in each other should never be in question.…

“As a chief officer we must be more than someone’s friend. To simply call them a brother would not do our relationship justice. … Ron is our comrade. It’s harder to be a comrade than to be a friend. It’s different than being a brother. Friends and brothers will accept and forgive your mistakes. They’re happy to be with you. You can relax and joke with them … but comrades are different. Comrades still take part in all our joking around [but] when it comes to our profession they forgive nothing. They can’t. They need you to be better because it is you who are out there on the line risking your lives. We take responsibility of bringing our entire crew back safely and that’s something we take seriously. When that doesn’t happen it’s a burden that’s carried the rest of their  lives.

“Some people would never know or understand that, but it is a very difficult mantle to carry. .. Camaraderie is difficult. It’s shouts, it’s commands, it’s bruises, it’s cuts, it’s a sore back. It’s heat on the back of your neck for you folks, and a pain in the pit of our stomachs standing outside watching. It’s the grimy handshake and the hug when we’re all soaking wet but we know you’re safe. It’s not being asleep when it’s your turn to be on watch or be on guard or be there. It’s trust. It’s respect. It’s acting honorably and respectfully.”

With that he introduced Kanterman who took the oath of office from Town Clerk Lori Kaback and his wife placed a pin on his coat.

Kanterman thanked those in attendance, in particular his wife Fran, to whom he gave a bouquet of flowers and noted their 36th wedding anniversary was just a few days earlier.

“My original intent was to work one year as interim chief and then see what was what,” he said. “In short order I knew this was a special place and a special fire department to be with.

“When I came here in June of 2014, I asked the firefighters ‘do the people here love you’ and they said ‘yes.’ I said ‘how do you know?’ and they said be patient and wait until December.

Around the 10th the parade of cars started coming to the firehouse. Cakes, cookies, brownies, platters, and it kept up until after New Year’s. I thought to myself, they either love us or they’re trying to kill us from diabetes or high blood pressure.”

He then brought all the members of the department present to join him in front of Truck 5 and reviewed the efforts of the department, including the promotions, new operating procedures and renewing their relationship with the schools

“Let me tell you why I was hoping to stay,” he said. “ Each year at Christmas time, the members under their union leadership purchase and serve lunch at one of the local senior homes. I stopped in last year to look around… It was quite a sight. This was pretty special.

“They join forces every year with the Marine Corps Reserve and make fire headquarters a Toys for Tots drop-off point and collect 1,200 toys each year.

“Mrs. Jones called 911 a few weeks ago because Kitty got stuck behind the baseboard molding during a kitchen renovation. They stopped by, recovered Kitty and put the baseboard back.”

He also told how the “men in the Wilton Fire Department epitomize brotherhood each and every day.” Last fall they helped a Bridgeport lieutenant, who lives in Wilton and was suffering from cancer, by visiting his home and completing a full yard cleanup. They also contributed their own sick time to a new recruit whose infant son suddenly became ill.

“Why the hell wouldn’t I want to be here,” he asked. “Wouldn’t you? These are only a few of the reasons I am honored and humbled to have been selected as Wilton’s next permanent chief.”