NAUGATUCK — When Ellen Murray graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 1981 with a degree in physical education, she never thought she would become a career firefighter.
A year later, she still hadn’t landed a teaching job and was working at a tree nursery in Bridgeport when a firefighter from Stratford, Murray’s hometown, told her the department was accepting applications. Murray applied, got the job — and loved it.
“I don’t think I was the type of person, at that point in my life, to sit inside at a desk,” Murray said. “When the alarm went off, you never knew where you were going or what you were going to have to do.”
After nearly 28 years with the Stratford department, Murray retired last June, but she did not stay out of work long. Now 52 and living in Shelton, she began working Monday as the borough’s new deputy fire chief.
Murray ended up in the borough department much the same way she ended up in Stratford’s — a Stratford firefighter told her about the opening, and she applied.
“I thought I would stay retired, and then I heard about this job,” she said.
Murray’s pension from Stratford is more than $92,000 a year, and her current base salary in the borough is $68,000.
In the Naugatuck Fire Department’s history, she is the first deputy chief hired from outside the department and the first woman to hold a position other than dispatcher or secretary.
For many of her years in the Stratford department, Murray was the only female firefighter. She spent six years as a firefighter and 17 years as a lieutenant before being promoted to assistant fire chief, or a shift commander equivalent to a captain in the borough.
Murray applied to be Stratford’s deputy chief in 2009, but the job was offered to Curtis Maffett, a candidate from South Carolina. Murray subsequently filed a complaint with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities alleging that the town discriminated against her based on her race, gender, union activity and a previous gender discrimination lawsuit against the town. The commission has granted Murray a release of jurisdiction, enabling her to take the case to court.
Murray filed her first lawsuit against Stratford after she was passed over in 1994 for a promotion to assistant fire chief; she and the town settled out of court, according to the most recent complaint, filed in February 2010.
According to the complaint, Stratford Fire Chief James Cavanaugh told Murray she was his number one choice for deputy chief and that he was pushing the town to hire her. Murray was one of the final three candidates interviewed, but the job offer eventually went to Maffett, a black male, although Cavanaugh had told Murray town officials “were not very impressed” with him.
Murray, who is white, claimed that Maffett did not have her qualifications and that the town broke from its practice of hiring from within both times she sought a promotion.
She also noted the consultant that ran the job search “touts its diversity hiring success.”
Naugatuck Fire Commission Chairman Wayne Malicki said he came across the complaint after punching Murray’s name into Google. Fire Chief Ken Hanks and the borough human resources department are also aware of it, Malicki said, but he did not know whether others on the fire commission were.
“We had no problem with it at all,” Malicki said. “What we were looking for was the most qualified candidate.”
Murray lives with her husband, who is also an assistant fire chief in Stratford. She has two children from a previous marriage and two stepchildren.
Before she was hired in the borough, Murray had started to work toward an online master’s degree in emergency management or public safety, she said. She is taking a break from course work for a while but plans on picking it up again.
“I kind of want to get settled here before I put another iron in the fire,” she said.
Instead of going out on all calls as a shift commander does, Murray now spends much of her time doing desk work, and has to adjust to a new town after working in her hometown for decades.
“I’m starting from square one again,” Murray said. “The guys have been great, though.”
Hanks said he was impressed with Murray’s performance so far, especially her input toward an emergency management exercise Friday that simulated the collapse of the Mixmaster in Waterbury.
“We picked a very good person to be deputy chief,” Hanks said.