Wilton fire chief leaves a legacy of wellness and safety

Almost five years to the day that he started, Fire Chief Ron Kanterman had his office packed up last week, ready for his last day on June 28.

“I was hired June 1, 2014,” Kanterman said during an interview in his office last week. He described Wilton’s fire department as “successful” with “a strong training program and strong fire marshal’s office,” both of which he tried to improve upon.

Kanterman has always been about firefighter health and safety. He recently had his ninth textbook published, “Fire Officer’s Guide to Occupational Safety & Health,” by fireengineeringbooks.com.

As such, he stressed wellness in the Wilton department as well as training and safety.

“This gang is into fitness,” he said, adding that training is the foundation of safety.

“They train every shift, honing skills, building muscle memory” so that when they go to a fire or on a difficult EMS call, “they don’t think about what they have to do.

“You just go to work. It’s all in your head.”

One of his other goals when he came five years ago was to improve fire prevention programs.

“They had a decent program, but they had stopped going to the schools,” he said. Very close to the date he started, Kevin Smith was hired as superintendent of schools.

“He’s been a great ally,” Kanterman said. Together they “reconstituted the fire safety program.”

“Chief Kanterman was one of my first, if not my first, appointments when I started,” Smith told The Bulletin. “In addition to providing a very warm welcome, he proposed a partnership to reintroduce fire safety into our curriculum with support from the Wilton Fire Department.

“From that first introduction, we’ve had a tremendous relationship personally, and a wonderful working partnership with the fire department. He is an outstanding professional who exhibits tremendous passion for his craft. I will miss working with him and wish him the very best. We will continue the work he started and maintain a great working relationship with the Wilton Fire Department,” Smith said.

Firefighters’ health

As firefighting becomes more and more sophisticated, some of the dangers have been increasing.

One of these is health and the prevalence of cancer among firefighters. A cancer survivor himself, Kanterman has been especially concerned about this.

“You go into a house fire, the toxicity is off the charts,” he said. Many objects in a home, such as carpets, upholstery and window dressings are petroleum- or hydrocarbon-based.

“It’s a different fire than it was years ago. It’s hotter, faster and more toxic,” he said.

Some of the steps the fire department takes now to mitigate the effects of these toxins are:

  • Washing down uniforms and equipment at the scene rather than waiting to return to the firehouse.

  • Keeping a supply of wipes so firefighters can wipe off their necks, preventing toxins from seeping into their glands.

  • Having hand-washing stations.

  • Wiping down seats in the trucks. Future fire trucks will have “clean cabs” that can be more easily wiped down.

Diverse assignments

Because the fire department has become so much more than a unit to just fight fires, members must also be trained for EMS, confined spaces, technical rescues, motor vehicle accidents, hazmat spills, and water rescues.

To enhance their training regimen, Kanterman said he designed and had built an indoor-rescue facade that enables members to practice self-rescue. Firefighters can also put up a ladder and practice rescuing a dummy out a window, and they can take up hoses to practice that as well. The firefighters made some suggestions to the facade to make it more versatile, Kanterman said.

Asked if there is anything the fire department can’t handle, he said their diversity in operational skills is backed up by “a good, solid mutual aid agreement with six surrounding towns: Westport, Norwalk, New Canaan, Georgetown, Ridgefield and Weston.”

The ‘everything department’

While to many it is still the fire department, Kanterman says it is an “everything department.” “ FEMA calls us all-hazards departments.”

That brings up a change that causes Kanterman to shake his head.

“I’ve been in the service 45 years and I never thought I would be putting firefighters in ballistic gear.” But that is the direction Wilton is going in. In March, fire and EMS workers heard a lecture and participated in hands-on “stop the bleed” training for “the day we never want to come,” Kanterman said, referring to either a shooting or other type of attack.

“When police responded to Columbine [school shooting] they waited for the SWAT team,” Kanterman said. Some of the victims may have survived if they had been attended to right away.

“Now police departments don’t wait. They get in and neutralize the hazard,” he said. “It’s another paradigm shift for firefighters. In the 80s we started responding to chemical spills. Post 9/11 it was weapons of mass destruction. This is the next thing.”

It’s a big change that is going to take time, he added. “It took the Wilton Fire Department a year to come to terms with what we can do,” he said. “At the end of 2018, the guys said they’d get together with the police and were willing to go in with the proper protection and training.”

More training is planned for July and the police department is investigating what is needed in terms of ballistic personnel protective equipment.

Kanterman does not want the community to think the town is unprepared. “There is a plan,” he said. “If it happened tomorrow, we could operate.” The police, he said, “are extremely prepared and the rest of us are catching up.

“At the end of the day, this whole job is being prepared and trying to expect the unexpected,” he said.

What’s next

It was not Kanterman’s choice to leave; his contract was not renewed and he said he was told the Fire Commission wanted to go “in another direction.”

“It happens,” he said. He will take the summer off and look for one more position. At age 62, he said, “I’m not done yet.”

He said he wanted the community to know “they are in really good hands. The firefighters are well-trained professionals and they care. You can depend and rely on your firefighters.”

He walked over to his file cabinet and pulled out a folder marked “complaints” that he is leaving for the next chief. He opened it and it was empty.

“I haven’t gotten one complaint on any of the personnel in the last five years. These guys are so dedicated. They love the job. They love coming to work.”