Every firefighter has a story—here they share how the job has changed them and just what keeps them running into burning buildings
photographs by William Taufic
It starts out as a routine day, with a classroom training session on van fires, then moving on to maintenance. Since about a dozen firefighters eat, train, work and sleep at headquarters on the Post Road twenty-four hours a day, there’s always maintenance, from scrubbing the bathroom and shoveling snow, to fine-tuning air packs and portable ladders.
After lunching on fajitas—firefighters are notoriously good cooks—the plan is for the guys on Engine 2 to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for a needy senior citizen. The instant they get in the truck, though, the alarm sounds. A car is hanging over an embankment by TD Bank, right near the creek. In minutes, one of the firefighters might have to pull on the water rescue suit and jump into the icy creek. When they arrive, it’s a false alarm of sorts. A car straddles a concrete curb—in the middle of a parking lot. The driver requests that the firefighters lift up the busted car and carry it over the concrete, but this is a job for a wrecker. The firemen return to the truck, install the detectors, and embark on the afternoon drill: investigating the keys and hose fittings around the new elevator by the Gap. Better now, in the daylight, than at 2 a.m. with someone stuck inside. They enter the spiffy elevator, press the button for the basement, and as soon as the doors close, the radio squeals, “Engine 2, check on a wire down on Weston Road.” When the elevator lands, the firefighters hightail it back to the truck. At the scene, a massive tree bisects the road, the power line is on fire and drivers are cutting each other off to keep moving. “We’re pretty good at hitting a curveball,” says Lieutenant Joe Izzo, a sixteen-year veteran of the department, as he dons an orange safety vest and his blistered, battered and chipped black leather helmet that reveals the depth of his statement.
Joe Izzo was considering a pro-motion to national sales manager for a cell phone company when he learned he was next in line for a firefighter’s job in Westport. Like his father before him, he had been a volunteer fireman and he likes helping someone in need. The firefighter’s job would mean more satisfaction but a lot less pay. His wife told him to follow his heart. “I took a $50,000 to $60,000 pay cut and I’ve been happy ever since,” says Izzo. “Most days this is an extremely demanding physical job, but at the end of the day, it is so satisfying. No matter what you do, it usually results in helping someone out,” he says. He even spends his off days coaching St. Joseph’s state champion lacrosse team in Trumbull. The job as a firefighter can leave emotional scars, though, and for Izzo the particularly painful experiences include combing through the rubble with fellow rescue workers in New York City following the devastating World Trade Center attack. He has also had to respond to fatal car accidents on the highways that crisscross Westport; a few years back there were six of them within a year. “The person you come into the department as, you’re not going to be that person when you leave,” he says. “You’re going to see things and do things that will change you.” But the positives help him cope. Years ago Izzo was examining a building near a baseball field in Greens Farms when the call came that a fan was struck by a ball. Izzo and his colleagues raced to the scene, where they saw people performing CPR on the man. The firefighters grabbed their brand new defibrillator, ran to the field and resuscitated the man. “That guy is walking around today because we helped him. That is so rewarding,” Izzo says.
Todd Hall was an economics major, a professional hockey player on a championship team, and even a landscape designer. When he became a firefighter four years ago, Hall saw all the pieces of his life weave together seamlessly. He trained and boarded for eleven weeks at the state fire academy in Windsor Locks, where he finished at the top of his class; today he drives Engine 2 for Platoon 4. He navigates the behemoth truck around vehicles as coolly as he skated around competitors in the American Hockey League. In his first three years as a firefighter, he responded to hundreds of calls but not many fires—until the night of November 20, 2011, when Hall was working at the Saugatuck station. An automatic alarm was reported, something typically triggered by a benign factor, such as steam from a shower or a burned piece of toast. “One possibility that you don’t see very often with an automatic alarm is an actual fire,” Hall says. The first responders radioed that heavy smoke was billowing out of the back of Saugatuck Congregational Church. “The three of us ran out and got our gear on,” he recalls. “By the time we got to the church, there were visible flames coming through the roof. It got very big very quickly.” Minutes after Hall made it to an upper floor of the church, he was on his knees, unable to see in the smoke. His team’s job was to “make a stop,” to pull down the ceiling and impede the fire’s progress. The smoke became thicker and the temperature grew hotter as water poured down the stairs around them. The roar of the water coming out of the hoses served as a soundtrack. Then Hall heard the chief’s orders to evacuate; something had collapsed on the roof and the ceiling threatened to follow. “We train as best as we can for calls of any nature. But that never prepares you until you experience it,” says Hall.
Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury was the department’s training officer before becoming chief last May. While he acquired a wealth of experience during his twenty-six years in the department, his tenure as chief has been a baptism by fire. He’s guided his department through a hurricane whose waters flooded Main Street; heat that crippled three trains and stranded passengers for hours; a paralyzing Halloween snowstorm; a fatal house fire on Veteran’s Day; and the inferno at the Congregational church. “The most complicated by far, that church fire,” reckons the soft-spoken chief. “I thought for sure that the church would burn up and collapse. You read textbooks about these. No one puts out a fire in 200-year-old churches; they just burn so fast.” The department manned hand lines pumping 2,000 gallons a minute, the water feeding from the river. The firefighters from Norwalk filled the choir loft, swinging sledgehammers to cut a trench in the roof to show the fire a way out. “It was touch and go. For three hours we didn’t know if we were winning or losing,” the chief says. “Once it got into the sanctuary, it was literally a race.” The chief spends time on administration and budget talks mostly these days, but admits, “I miss the action of it all.” He recalls a house fire in Westport. The nanny managed to get one child out, but not the toddler upstairs. “As I crawled in, my head was burning, so I kneeled down, and then my knees started blistering. It was so hot,” he says. “I remember taking a kitchen chair and throwing it through the picture window to try to cool everything down for the guys upstairs. I knew they had to find that baby. I remember feeling that this was so important; I had to put that fire out no matter what happened to me. They were depending on me so they could get that child out.” They did. The toddler was treated at Norwalk Hospital. The child the nanny saved is now in high school and was so moved that he interned with the fire department last summer.