Career started on a whim for fire chief

Naugatuck Fire Chief Ellen Murray. –LUKE MARSHALL
Naugatuck Fire Chief Ellen Murray. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — Ellen Murray’s ascension to chief of the Naugatuck Fire Department may never have happened if she didn’t act on a whim a more than 35 years ago.

Murray’s career as a firefighter started in the Stratford Fire Department.

“I had a friend in the department. I ran into him and just joking said ‘are you hiring.’ He said, ‘yes we are’ and brought me down to get an application,” Murray said.

Murray, 57, of Shelton, hadn’t considered becoming a firefighter before then, but filled out the application and took the placement test.

“The testing process is difficult but I was a physical education major and I was a competitive swimmer, so that’s what helped me get through the physical aspect of the testing. Then I just loved it. I didn’t really see myself sitting behind a desk when I was younger. Every day is different,” Murray said.

In 1982, Murray officially became a firefighter. She served with the Stratford Fire Department for nearly three decades before retiring.

Shortly after retiring, it was another friend who told her about the opening for deputy chief at the Naugatuck Fire Department.

Murray applied and was named the department’s second in command in 2011 under then-Fire Chief Ken Hanks.

“It was very exciting. I love working here. Working under Chief Hanks was a wonderful experience. He was very knowledge and a wonderful chief. I learned a lot from him,” Murray said.

After Hanks retired in August 2015, Murray served as the interim chief until she reached a four-year contract with the borough in May to become chief.

“I was very excited and humbled they chose me to lead the department,” Murray said.

Now that Murray has been serving as the department’s chief in an official capacity for a month or so she has one word that describes the job: busy.

“It’s a very busy time to take over with the budget. We are running a test for the firefighters. So there is a lot going on,” Murray said.

On June 11, the department held a written test for approximately 300 potential firefighters. The test will help the department fill vacant positions and create a list of potential firefighters the department can hire in the future, Murray said.

The department has recently had a wave of retirements where it saw the loss of a number of firefighters with at least 25 years of experience. The department could see another seven retirements of long-serving officers in the next two years, Murray added.

In addition, the department is also dealing with a trend of newly-hired firefighters leaving for other departments that offer a traditional pension plan.

The borough 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. The change was made in order to save the borough money in the long term.

“We are losing a lot of institutional knowledge. We are losing a lot of experience. We have a lot of people that need extra training just to make up for a lack of experience. So training is going to be big in the next couple of years,” Murray said. “It is a challenge to have a turnover of firefighters as quickly and as many as we do. We will get through it.”

Aside from training and retaining new firefighters, Murray’s top goals include installing a new radio system. The current radio system does not cover the entire borough.

“We have some dead spots in town, which are dangerous for the firefighters. We don’t have communications,” Murray said.

Murray said the new radio system is currently in the 2016-17 budget, which is facing a referendum. If the department receives the money, she said, it will take a few years to implement the new system.

Despite the changes at the firehouse, Murray said the department will continue to serve the community as it always has.

“We are just going to continue with the customer service that the department has been giving people. If you need help, call us and we’ll come out no matter what it is,” Murray said.