NAUGATUCK — Fire Chief Ken Hanks has fond memories of his grandfather bringing him and his brother to the Naugatuck Fire Department headquarters downtown when they were children.
Hanks grew up to become a firefighter, and eventually became the chief of the department. Now he is preparing to say goodbye, as he plans to step into retirement.
Hanks’ grandfather, Andrew O’Toole, was a burgess in the mid-to-late 1940s and served on a fire subcommittee that helped bring the old Fire Engine No. 3 to the borough. O’Toole’s name was displayed on a plaque with other dignitaries who helped in the purchase.
Nearly 50 years later, Hanks became chief at the same headquarters where he once stood in awe looking at his grandfather’s name engraved in brass. On Monday, he announced that his romantic journey from childhood dreamer to local emergency services leader will soon come to an end. Hanks will retire from the Naugatuck Fire Department effective Aug. 28.
“It has been a great experience, and I know I am leaving the fire department better than when I started with improved training, modern equipment and a culture of good ‘customer service,’” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I have always advised employees that were thinking of leaving that they should base their decision on what is best for them and their family. It is time I took my own advice.”
Hanks, 54, was in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the borough over the past two weeks. The two sides could not come to an agreement, and Hanks decided to call it a career after discussing it with his family.
A lifelong Naugatuck resident and current president of the Naugatuck Historical Society, Hanks started his career as a volunteer in the Naugatuck Volunteer Fire Department in 1982. Three years later, he was hired as a full-time career firefighter. He worked his way up the ranks to become deputy chief in 2005.
He stepped into the chief’s role on Sept. 8, 2010, when he accepted an offer from the borough to fill in as interim chief for 10 months following the resignation of former Fire Chief Charles Doback Jr. After 10 months, Hanks signed a four-year contract to serve as chief; it expired on June 30. Borough officials extended that contract while they attempted to negotiate a new pact with Hanks.
Deputy Fire Chief Ellen Murray’s contract is also up for renewal. The borough plans to negotiate with her.
Mayor Robert Mezzo said the Board of Fire Commissioners and the borough’s Human Resources Department will begin the search process for a new chief. He said he anticipates there will be an interim fire chief but did not say with whom the borough would negotiate.
Mezzo lauded Hanks as a great firefighter and leader; he called it an honor to work with Hanks.
“He has been outstanding,” Mezzo said. “He has put his mark on this department, and he’s been so devoted to the fire department and the borough that he’s recognized as a leader not only within town but as a leader within the region and a resource for other departments to use in terms of knowledge, fire protection and emergency planning.”
Hanks teaches part-time at the Connecticut Fire Academy and the Wolcott Fire School. He plans to continue teaching.
In Naugatuck, Hanks earns a base salary of $84,890 a year as fire chief. He also receives an annual stipend of $5,000 to serve as fire training coordinator. His role as president of the Naugatuck Historical Society is a volunteer position.
Mezzo said he knows the chief will be hard to replace. He said the borough was very close to coming to terms on a contract agreement with him.
“There was nothing contentious whatsoever about our negotiations,” he said.
Those close to the situation said a contract proposal the borough offered Hanks would have guaranteed him a $4,000 salary increase in the first year, but he would have had to go before the non-union salary review board to ask for pay raises in years two, three and four. It also would have required Hanks to pay a higher share and higher deductible on his health insurance plan, which he would have had to continue paying throughout retirement. The insurance cost would have gone up about $3,000 in year one, Hanks said.
He said the contract proposal was not the only reason for his retirement.
“I’ve been thinking about it for the past year,” he said. “There were some issues that happened last year — I had a back issue that was non-service-related but it caused an issue. My kids are out of high school now, and I always said I wanted to work while they were in school. And I’m getting older — this is definitely a young man’s job.”
Hanks, who was honored as the borough’s firefighter of the year in 2014, said he will miss the job.
“It sounds cliche, but I like helping people,” he said. “We go out and solve people’s problems — whether it’s a car accident, a fire, issues happening in their home — we try to get people’s lives back to normal.”