Connecticut Fire Chief On Leave Over Racial Insensitivity

The fire chief of the New Britain Fire Department has been placed on leave following an investigation report that concluded the department’s sagging morale was in part attributable to his racial insensitivity.

Mayor Erin Stewart placed Fire Chief Thomas Ronalter on leave effective tomorrow. According to the Star Tribune, Mayor Stewart plans to start disciplinary proceedings next week. Her decision comes on the heels of a report prepared by DCB Law Group and the city’s personnel office into allegations by firefighter Daylon Hudson and the local NAACP that were made last spring.

Hudson accused Chief Ronalter of refusing to hang a portrait of former Fire Chief Mark Carr, who was black, from a display of portraits of past chiefs at headquarters. Chief Carr was the chief from 2004 to 2012, and since has passed away. Last March, Hudson was disciplined for removing the portraits of the other chiefs from the display after Chief Ronalter refused to add Chief Carr’s portrait to the line up.

The Hartford Courant quoted from the report:

  • “There is a strong and compelling perception amongst the overall membership of the NBFD that the administrative leadership … is deficient and dysfunctional, mired by a lack of consistent affirmative communication, unfair treatment and favoritism.”
  • “There is no known strategic plan for the NBFD. Many believe that the chief is only selectively present or available to the rank-and-file, choosing to speak with certain people he likes and purposely avoiding or even recognizing or acknowledging anyone else.”

The Hartford Courant quoted from a statement issued by Chief Ronalter as saying: “I detest racism and all of the harm it causes. While I have made mistakes, I have never treated people — firefighters or otherwise — differently based on the color of their skin.”

Chief Ronalter claims 50 percent of the firefighters he has hired since he became chief have been minorities or women, and he has no plans to resign.

Mayor Stewart named Deputy Chief Peter Margentino to serve as interim chief. More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Matt Kivela

    Hoo Boy…I do not have personal experience with New Britain’s politics but I know enough to say it’s important to understand this story that Mark Carr had an unusual path to becoming Chief.

    Well “understand” is probably the wrong word, but more background is needed to start having context on the internal and external politics going on.

    Mayor Tim Stewart — Mayor Erin Stewart’s father — was locked in a bitter and long running battle with the fire department union.

    When the Chief’s position opened up, he recruited from outside the department.

    Way outside — Mark Carr was a commander with the London Fire Brigade whose wife took a corporate promotion that moved her to the U.S.

    From what I understand he was young (40), competent, smart, and a big middle finger from the Mayor to the Union. That he stuck around 8 years I think is to his credit when you see so many carpet-bagging Chiefs who move around every 3-4 years. He was the target of numerous grievances and no-confidence votes, at least in the early years of his tenure. As I recall from the public drama back then, some seemed legitimate, some seemed politics.

    I was shocked when I saw this article since I hadn’t known he passed away. Looking up the obituary, he was only 50 when he died.

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