DANBURY, Conn. — In 1983, Geoff Herald had been a Danbury firefighter for a little more than three years. Other firefighters were signing up to take the Civil Service test for promotion to lieutenant, which carried a significant bump in pay and command of a three-person engine company.
Looking over the list of candidates, Herald’s supervisor realized that the firefighter he’d come to regard as “a brilliant kid,” wasn’t among them.
“I asked him why he hadn’t signed up, and told him it could be another six or seven years before there was another opportunity,” said then-Lt. Phil Curran, now a Danbury councilman.
Herald’s response caught Curran off-guard.
“He said, ‘I’m not ready to be a lieutenant. I’ll take it next time,'” Curran said. “He did, he came in first, and he came in first on every test he took after that.”
It was another six years before the next lieutenant’s test was given, but since then Herald has steadily climbed the department’s career ladder, culminating with his selection as chief in 2007.
In retrospect, said Herald, whose retirement next month will cap a 40-year firefighting career, the decision to delay that first test was correct.
“I was still maturing as a firefighter,” he said. “I wanted to move through the ranks, but I knew I wasn’t ready. To do it at that time wouldn’t have been right for me, for the department or for the city.”
To Assistant Fire Chief T.J. Wiedl, the story is an apt summary of Herald’s professionalism, passion and dedication to the department and to the men and women under his command.
“Geoff’s dedication to learn the fire service is unmatched,” Wiedl said. “In our first years together in the department, while everybody else was going off on vacation to Florida or the Bahamas, he was going to take a class somewhere. And he’s done that almost every year.”
A city resident for more than 50 years, Herald, 58, was member of Danbury High School’s Class of 1973, a group that has provided the department with several of its current leaders, including Wiedl and Fire Marshal Jim Russell.
“He’s always been very big on education,” said Russell, who, unlike his two classmates, joined the fire service at the relatively advanced age of 45 after 20 years with Northeast Utilities.
Herald’s parents both served in the U.S. Navy, and he joined the Germantown Volunteer Fire Department in 1974, a year after graduating from high school.
Several of his friends and classmates were already volunteers, and as a child he lived only a few blocks away from the Germantown firehouse.
“It’s something I got from my parents,” Herald said “You participate where you live and you help your neighbor. Plus, there was the adventure and a certain panache of being a firefighter.”
Herald’s thirst for knowledge is virtually unlimited.
After five years as a volunteer, he was hired by the city in 1979, but he continued going to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Western Connecticut State College in 1982.
“When I came on the job, I made a promise to myself that every year I would find a course or a class that would make me a better firefighter,” Herald said.
Since then, he has compiled a lengthy list of degrees and professional certifications, including an associate’s degree in fire sciences from Waterbury State Technical College and a master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University.
He holds a Fire Officer 4 ranking from the National Fire Protection Association and is one of fewer than 1,000 firefighters nationally certified as a Chief Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence.
“As chief, your primary goal is to make sure the men and women in the department have the tools, training and equipment to do their jobs safely,” Herald said.
Firefighting has evolved since he began his career four decades ago, when the primary combustibles were wood, wool and natural fabrics. Today, there are a host of petrochemical-based materials in the mix, and fires burn hotter and quicker.
“The old-timers used to say, ‘Hey, college boy, you can’t put out a fire by throwing a book at it.’ ” Herald said. “You can’t, but you can use the knowledge from a book to put a fire out.”
But those who’ve worked with him say Herald’s contributions go far beyond accomplishing those goals within the limitations of a city budget.
He has been a major proponent of regionalization, advocating the establishment of a state regional fire school in Danbury that will allow local firefighters to train alongside those from other communities they could someday be working with.
Two years ago, Mayor Mark Boughton charged Herald with drafting a plan to see the fire department through the next 50 years.
“His task force report is a remarkable piece of work about what we need to be doing in the future,” Wiedl said. “That’s a bible for me.”
Herald has also improved the career department’s frayed relationship with the city’s 12 volunteer fire companies, giving them an important role in working with paid firefighters in emergencies.
“The relationship has never been better than it is today,” said Charlie Coakley, president of the Danbury Volunteer Fireman’s Council. “He’s done a great job bringing us together.”
Throughout his career, Herald has never forgotten the words of one of his early mentors, Lt. Randy Esposito, who told him that a firefighter’s job was “making a bad day better.”
It’s something he remembers when he sees the woman he helped years ago after she was run down at Taylor and Triangle streets while he was working on the department ambulance.
“She was told she would never walk again, but she persevered and she’s walking today,” Herald said. “Every time I see her, she thanks me.”
But he also recalls an 11-year-old boy injured in another traffic accident. When he arrived, the boy’s mother was holding her son’s hand and imploring Herald to save him.
“I knew his chances were slim, so I just told her to keep holding his hand while I did what I could,” Herald said, his voice thickening at the memory.
The boy later died at the hospital, and Herald felt like he had let the woman down.
“Two weeks later, there was a letter from the mother in The News-Times, and here she was, thanking me for what I did,” he said.
(c)2014 The News-Times (Danbury, Conn.)
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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