NAUGATUCK — For Ethan Gagnon, firefighting is a way to give back.
Gagnon, a 21-year-old Franklin resident, was in a car accident when he was younger, and it was members of his local fire department who came to his aid.
“I went down to give [the firefighters] a thank you letter and they handed me an application. I thought about it and I said ‘this is what I want to do, I want to help people.’ That’s pretty much what I did. Everyone knows firefighters and fire departments and I wanted to be known in the community as that guy that’s there to help the community,” Gagnon said.
The community Gagnon is now helping is Naugatuck. He is among six new firefighters who recently joined the ranks at the Naugatuck Fire Department. The other five new hires are Matthew Hetrick, Ryan Chapin, Kevin Gorman, Brandon Johnson and Benjamin Mike.
The department began bringing the new firefighters on board last November two at time in order to train them, interim Fire Chief Ellen Murray said. All six are now on the job.
All of the new recruits came out of the fire academy within the last five years, which means the department didn’t have to pay to send them to the academy, Murray said. They still had to be trained to use all the different equipment the department owns as of last month. That training is expected to be finished by the end of January, Murray said.
Until they are trained on the vehicles, they are ineligible to work overtime, Murray said. The department is required to have at least eight firefighters per shift.
“So, it is still a lot of pressure on the other guys to fill in all the slots,” Murray said.
The new crop of firefighters helps to offset a wave of recent retirements in the department, including former Fire Chief Ken Hanks and three firefighters with 25 years of experience each. The department is also dealing with a trend of newly-hired firefighters leaving for other departments that offer a pension plan.
Over the past few years, the borough has negotiated a change in retirement plans for all new municipal employees. All new municipal employees are now offered defined contribution retirement plans, similar to a 401 (K) in the private sector, rather than defined benefit pension plans. Under the defined contribution retirement plans, the employee and the employer contribute to the employee’s retirement. The change was made in order to save the borough money in the long term.
Many career fire departments around the state still offer traditional pension plans, in which the municipality provides the entire cost of the pension after 20 or 25 years with the department.
Murray said the six new hires brings the department’s ranks to 37. There are currently two vacant positions at the department, but no money was put into the budget to fund them.
Murray said the new recruits have large shoes to fill.
“Between [Hanks] and three guys with over 20 years, we are replacing over 100 years of experience,” Murray said.
The new recruits aren’t necessary out to fill any shoes. Rather, they just want to help keep Naugatuck safe.
“I got involved because I really enjoy helping people out,” said Gorman, a 22-year-old Killingworth resident. “People call the fire service when they need help and I think it’s awesome that we can make a career out of helping people.”
Gagnon is glad to finally be able to turn his passion into a career.
“I’ve been trying to get hired as a firefighter for three and a half years. So you build yourself up and you get on, and it is so surreal. When you have a passion for something, you thoroughly enjoy doing it and you love what comes out of it. This is not so much a job, it’s a passion,” Gagnon said. “We don’t really do it for a paycheck.”
Murray said that is a common sentiment in the department.
“It’s not a career, it’s a passion,” Murray said.
However, the danger of losing the firefighters to a department that offers a pension still looms large.
According to Murray, 14 of the department’s 37 firefighters were hired within the last five years. In addition, one firefighter is retiring in February and eight more are eligible for retirement this year.
“I think it comes down to dollars and their future, which is out of our hands. It’s the pension and pay,” Murray said of the firefighters who have chosen to leave for other departments.
Murray is hoping that the department’s comradery is enough to encourage the newer firefighters to stay in Naugatuck.
“It’s a great department to work for. The guys are great. We are hoping that when they get here, they’ll feel a part of the department and want to stay,” Murray said.