When Wilton Fire Chief Ron Kanterman delivered his emotional and personal remarks at the town’s 9/11 memorial ceremony, he also mentioned it would be his last time speaking as Chief at Wilton’s annual Sept. 11 tribute. At the end of this fiscal year, June 30, 2019, Kanterman will step down from his job. Hired as Wilton’s interim chief in 2014 after the retirement of former Chief Paul Milositz, Kanterman was hired as the town’s official Fire Chief one year later. We asked the him to talk about his service in Wilton, what he’s tried to instill in the department–and what he wants to accomplish before leaving next June.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  I was surprised to hear about your planned departure. I remember when you arrived as Interim Chief.

Chief Ron Kanterman:  They gave me a one-year contract and six months into that first year, they asked me to stay. After six months I knew the layout, the town, the people, the guys. And I said, ‘What a great place to work.’ So they gave me a three-and-a-half-year contract, to age 62. Which comes in October. They gave me an eight-month extension to finish out the fiscal year because my position is already budgeted for. So when that comes to an end, I don’t know what they’re going to do at that point. I’m not sure if they’re gonna shop for a more economical chief, or we have two chiefs, myself [and] the deputy chief [Mark Amatrudo]. Maybe they’re gonna try it with one chief. I don’t know the answer to that. Those are discussions that are taking place at the first selectman and fire commission level. I’m not sure what their future plan is.

GMW:  My first memory of you might’ve been with the ALS bucket challenge. At Middlebrook School, with all the students and the teachers. You brought the fire truck in, you turned the hose on.

Kanterman:  When I came to town I met with all the principals and Superintendent Kevin Smith, who was brand-new also. I called him up, ‘Hey, we’re two new guys, let’s get together.’ I talked about that [the Department] hadn’t been in the schools in three or four years to do fire safety. He said, ‘Absolutely, you guys are in. I’ll tell my principals to make time. That’s important.’ He opened the door right away and we put our guys back in the schools.

I was here one month when [Middlebrook Dean] Jory Higgins called me. I’d just met him. He said, ‘We’re doing this thing. Can you bring the truck over? It’s gonna be a hot day, and just kinda put the hose on and cool everybody off. We’re gonna be dumping ice on top of each other.’ We went over and I told my guys, ‘Fill up a Gatorade bucket with ice. When I go into the infield to talk to the kids, you guys come and dump it on my head. Let’s give the kids a little bit of a charge. So they came and they iced me up, the guys. And they felt good, they got the new boss, and the kids had a good time, and it was all for the cause.

GMW:   There’s sometimes an image of people in the line of duty that’s stern, brusque … You give it a twinkle. Like there’s–

Kanterman:  [Laughs]  Oh wow, I’ve never been told that.

GMW:  You call me ‘Smiley’ when I come in. You give it life.

Kanterman:  God gave me this personality. I’m kind of outgoing, I’m friendly and all that. For a boss or department head, I think it’s important. God also blessed me with a pretty good sense of humor. In this business you need one. We see people having the worst day of their lives. Guys that have been around longer than 15 minutes have seen a lot of bad stuff. So, I’d keep my sense of humor.

Other than everything else we have to do, technically, administratively, my job is to be a cheerleader for my people. Morale’s important. A happy workforce is a productive workforce. It’s no different in the firehouse. If there is a difference, it’s that we see a lot of bad stuff.

GMW:  What has been the most important thing you’ve done since you came to Wilton?

Kanterman: Firefighter safety is one of my top priorities. It’s 24/7. I’ve worked 20 years with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Our mission is to take care of the families of guys that get killed in the line of duty. I’ve seen so much grief and tears. They changed their mission into preventing line-of-duty deaths, preventing injuries. I became an advocate for firefighter safety.

While the guys [here] had pretty good safety consciousness, I’d like to think I bolstered that up. With my beliefs and my commentary, and constant reminders:  wear your gloves, protect your eyes, put up your collar, zip up your coat. They do it anyway.

The most devastating thing in the world is to lose a firefighter in the line of duty. It’s devastating. John goes out to work in the morning, doesn’t come home. The firehouse is devastated. The town and the city where it happens. We lose between 80 and 100 firefighters a year in the United States. I do everything I can within my power to make sure I send my guys home, seven o’clock in the morning. So they can take their kids to school, and nag their wives to death, and do everything else that the guys do. That’s so important to me.

Now we’re getting into other things, like cancer prevention. Cancer kills more firefighters in the U.S. than anything else right now. We lose more firefighters to cancer, throughout the country, than getting trapped in a fire or getting killed on the road. Our generation is carrying that flag now to do everything we can to get the next generation, to the point where there is a national Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

My goal is for a young kid, male or female, to go into the fire academy 25 years from today, and a Cancer Support Network that’s not needed anymore [because] there is no more cancer in fire service. I’m a cancer survivor myself–18 months ago I had an operation.

GMW:  Really?

Kanterman:  I was supporting that organization for five years, doing fundraising and all of a sudden I became a card carrying member. I still do work for the Firefighter Cancer Network, and the Fallen Firefighters. Those are my charities.

Firefighter safety, health, wellness–the benefit of all of that, and everything that we do here in the firehouse, is actually the customer, the end-user, benefits from that. If I give my firefighters everything they need–health, wellness, fitness, gear, training, equipment–they will be successful in the street. What happens in the street is what counts the most.

You and your family reap that benefit. Whether you’re trapped in your car, or your chest hurts, or there’s smoke in the second floor of your house. If they have all that stuff, then the end-user benefits. So I always believe, take care of the firefighters. Give them everything they need to be successful and the customers will benefit from that.

Part of that is getting directly to the customer. That’s putting the firefighters back in the schools five years ago. That’s me going to Rotary, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce, the clergy; me getting out into the community and meeting with all those people. Us showing up at Ambler Farm Day, at the downtown fairs, handing out literature, talking to people. All of that. In any community, the hope is that the fire service and the fire chief and the firefighters reach the people, and say, we’re gonna help you help yourself. Not just, if you have a fire we’ll respond. That’s too late. Quote me on this–when the doors go up and the trucks roll out, you have fire in your house, it’s too late. To me that’s a system failure.

Prevention is key. We’ve been fighting that fight forever, the ‘It can’t happen here.’ Everybody believes they’ll be the victim of a crime. Nobody believes they’ll have a fire in their house.

Everybody puts double locks on the door, you lock up your car, you hit the alarm, you hold your pocketbook real tight when you’re walking through the mall. You’re in New York City, you’re looking over your shoulder while you’re walking down the street. Everybody believes they’ll be a victim of a crime. Nobody thinks they’ll have a fire in their house, ever. That’s why public education is so important.

GMW:  Several new firefighters joined the department under your watch too.

Kanterman:  Yes. In 2015, we hired four new guys. One guy in his 20s, two guys in their 30s, and one guy who was about 50–he had retired from Greenwich. Each one of them, even with the age difference, brought something new to the table. Something different, fresh, new. That’s why they’re here.

Back in ’15, we broke the color barrier here. We have an African-American firefighter, we have a Hispanic firefighter, and we hired a veteran. So three of the four, we got three target groups. It was unintentional, we weren’t necessarily looking to do that. But that’s just the way it worked out. These were the top guys–the cream rises to the top.

They had all already been to the 15-week recruit school, whether they were a career firefighter before. Two of the four were volunteer firefighters but put themselves through recruit school. Paid for it out of their own pocket because they wanted to be career firefighters.

We have a firefighters union here, the International Association of Firefighters. Three of the four officers are three of the new guys–one hired eight years ago is an officer, and two who were hired three years ago are officers. Now they hold leadership positions within their union.

Now we have a probationary firefighter in school. Gary Mandel got sworn in two weeks ago–he’s 55 years old. Everybody said, ‘You hired a 55-year-old guy?’ In the consortium test he came out number one on the list, out of 500 people that took the test. Number one.

Here’s a guy, 55, he’s a triathlete, he’s an attorney by trade, and he’s been a volunteer in Ridgefield for about 8 or 10 years, and wants to do a career change. He’s in recruit school now. He’s the old man in a sea of recruits. And he’s kicking it.

GMW:  Not to take away from young guys either, but somebody who comes in with 55 years under his belt, you come in with a different world perspective.

Kanterman:  Here’s the other thing about putting experienced firefighters in Wilton specifically. We’re a six-man crew. In the world of firefighting, six men is just really above one fire engine in a big city. The fire engines in the big cities, they’re going with four or five guys on a unit. We’re pulling it with six altogether. We’re calling for mutual aid from other towns. But mutual aid is 14-16 minutes out. It could be Westport, Norwalk.

So our six guys are there by themselves for about 15 minutes. That is the most hazardous time. Statistically, that’s when firefighters get hurt and killed. We got six guys doing the work for 15 when they pull up. When we have a fire in a house, our guys work to injury–one of our guys gets hurt at every fire. Because they’re working for two and three people until mutual aid gets in. I have an injury at every fire, it’s almost a given.

The number one injury is strains and sprains. And our guys are in better shape than most. We have a trainer in here every Monday and Wednesday, and she works these guys out. We call them occupational athletes. They’re in tip-tip shape because they know that at a moment’s notice, they’re doing a 100-yard dash with a football heading for the goal line. At any time of the day or night. And even with them at tip-top shape, then somebody gets hurt. Because it’s beyond minimum staffing. We’re a small crew.

GMW:  The importance of having one another’s back in your field of work, I imagine it’s…

Kanterman:  The word “teamwork” can’t be overstated. But they’re good at it. The guys that’ve been here in Wilton , they know the drill really well. More importantly, when we go up north and we don’t have fire hydrants up there, we’re bringing all our water, they know how to use their water judiciously. We pull up to the house with 4,000 gallons, that’s all we’ve got.

I didn’t teach them that, they actually taught me that. When I came here, I never worked in a place that wasn’t hydranted. So, I said, ‘You’ll have to teach me tank operations.’ And they did. We had a fire on Shadow Lane two years ago at night. I said to the captain in charge of the shift, ‘Who’s doing your water,’ and he says, ‘The assistant chief from New Canaan coming in.’ I said, ‘I’m going to work with him, because I need to learn how to do this.”

That’s part and parcel to having your feet planted on the ground as a boss, when you can say, ‘You know what, I don’t know this, and I need to learn it.’  

GMW:  What do you want the residents of Wilton to know about this department?

Kanterman:  This is my fourth command, and this is the most dedicated, most honest, hardworking group of guys I’ve ever seen. It goes back to the fact that they know they’re a small crew, and they have to do three things at once at the scene. Even if it’s a major wreck on Rte. 7, they’re doing three things at once.

There’s a lot of places where you can’t get the line firefighters to go in a school and crawl on the floor with the kids. These guys asked me about it when I got here. ‘Chief, we haven’t been in schools, we haven’t been with the kids.’ That surprised me, because firefighters don’t want to do that work. They want to go to fires, they want to go to actions, they want to use their hands, they want to do what they’re being paid for.

But they understand the relevance and the importance of public fire safety education and they do it, and they enjoy it. It’s not a chore.

The people of Wilton need to know how fortunate they are that they have this small group of responders that care to a fault.

When I got here in 2014, I asked the guys, ‘Do the people of Wilton love you?’ And they said, ‘We think so.’ And I said, ‘What makes you think that?’ And they said to me, ‘Can you wait six months for that answer?’

And around Dec. 10, the parade of cars started here. Every car pulled up, with a trunk full of toys for Toys for Tots, and five white boxes from the local bakery for the firefighters. Five days later, I walked in the kitchen, and it looked like a bakery. And one of the guys remembered my question from June, and said, ‘Chief, they love us, look.’

GMW:  It’s not like that other places?

Kanterman:  Not in a lot of other places. And I said, ‘I wonder why?’ But then I started to get the stories. I get a phone call one day. ‘I called every town agency, and only your guys would come.’  No matter what people call us for, we go. We just go. And the guys, they get that. They get that that we’re the fire service, and the key word is ‘service.’

We had a guy call up, they came home from vacation, there’s a bat in the house. So, two guys went over there. Yesterday. I got a card in the mail, with a check for a donation, from someone whose landscaper had a heart attack while he was working; we came, we packaged him up. They thanked us for taking care of their landscaper.

Those kinds of things. A woman called, “We got a new kitten, it went behind the baseboard, we’re renovating the kitchen.” They stop by the house, they go in there, they pry the woodwork away from the baseboard away. They take kitty out, give him to the kid, put the baseboard back up, vacuum the sawdust, wipe up the floor and they go back. Two days later, the whole family shows up with five pounds of brownies. “We made these for you.”

The people of Wilton are fortunate that these guys care to a fault, they understand why they’re here, they understand that they answer to the taxpayers, and they will do anything in their power to solve the problem. Firefighters are problem solvers. People call us for just about anything, and our job is to get in between people and their problems and make their problems go away. That’s what our guys do every single day. Being here almost five years, with an average of 1,800 calls a year, we’ve had 5,000 contacts with the public since I’ve been here. And I haven’t gotten one call that someone was unhappy or, ‘Your guys are idiots, and you’re the head idiot,’ kind of thing. We only get compliments.

GMW:  Between now and June 30, what’s left on your checklist, what do you want to do?

Kanterman:  There’s a bunch of things we’ve got to get done. We do an annual review of our SOPs and our procedures. One of our captains retired, so we’re arranging for a captain’s exam, so we can promote. We have a guy in the academy, so we can replace that captain spot. We absolutely want to see the Fire Station 2 project get off the ground. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been working on it. I’d like to see it at least at the May Town Meeting, that the citizens look and say, ‘Yes, we need to renovate that firehouse, and let’s get going.’

Like Yogi Berra, it’s not over ’til it’s over. It’s very easy to say, “Well, I guess I’m done,” and just show up and take up space and have coffee every day. It’s not in my makeup, I can’t do it. There’s work to do. And I want to keep working, I enjoy what I do. However, until I’m done here, I’m not done here.

I’m about to publish a book on firefighter occupational safety and health. I just approved a cover design. Ten years from now, I want that one phone call that said, ‘We used that thing or we looked at something [in your book] and we saved one guy.’ That will be the payoff for all the heartache it is to get a book published.

GMW:  That’s fabulous.

Kanterman:  It’s everything I stand for, and everything that I want to do and that I mean.

So, I’m not done yet. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I’m not done yet. I still feel I have just a little bit more to give, and then we’ll see what happens. I’ll call you from my next stop and let you know where I landed.