Final salute: Felner bows out after 55 years with Fire Department
Updated 5:54 am, Monday, September 14, 2015
Felner, now 77 and retiring after 55 years with the Fire Department, has been the chief for the last 15 years. His retirement is effective Oct. 1, when Norwalk’s Fire Chief Denis McCarthy, a Fairfield resident, takes the helm of his hometown’s department.
It was 1959, and Felner, fresh out of the Marine Corps, had applied for a job not only with the Fire Department, but also with the State Police.
Pat Carroll, now a retired Fairfield police captain, told Felner that unless he had a friend in Hartford, he’d be stuck just driving up and down the Merritt Parkway as a state trooper. Take a firefighter’s job, Felner said that Carroll advised him.
He took Carroll’s advice to heart and has never looked back, Felner said, adding that he has no regrets.
“I enjoyed it, and I’d do it again,” the Fairfield native said. “I always wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter. I love this town, I love what I do.”
Even back in high school, Felner recalled that when he heard the fire horns sound, as a volunteer firefighter he’d sometimes bolt from class — something, he said, that almost got him suspended one time. While marking the completion of his one-year probationary period with the department in February 1960 with some cake, the party was interrupted by an alarm. The Country Club of Fairfield, Felner recalled, was burning down.
A small celebration — again, with cake — was staged Thursday night by the Fire Commission in tribute to Felner’s years of service to the town. This time, proceedings were not interrupted.
At what was Felner’s last commission meeting as chief, he said he was able to accomplish about “94 percent” of what he’d set out to do.
“I wanted to redo Station 4,” Felner said of the fire station in Southport Village. “It’s 117 years old, and I wanted to remodel it because we’re getting new equipment, and it won’t fit into the firehouse.”
What he’s most proud of, Felner said, is getting more fire apparatus and personnel for the department. “Better equipment, and new trucks,” he said.
Felner continued the local push for requiring that smoke detectors be installed in private homes and the fire-safety education started by one of his predecessors, William Russell.
Fire-safety education is a major reason, Felner said, that the number of fatal fires in Fairfield has been low ove the years. “We received a lot of awards from underwriters” for the town’s track record, he said.
Felner’s mood turned somber, however, as he recalled the department being honored for having gone seven years without a fatality. “A week later, a woman died in a fire on Denise Terrace,” he said. “I took all the awards we had and just put them aside.”
Perhaps one of the biggest changes Felner is responsible for happened after just a few years on the job.
“I was a young kid, a wise guy,” Felner said. It was 1962 or ’63, he recalled, when he organized the department’s 32 firefighters into a union. He served as its first president.
Assistant Fire Chief Chris Tracy, the union’s current president, noted Felner’s role in establishing Local 1426, and said the firefighters wish Felner “a long and healthy and happy retirement.”
Felner said he could not have done what he did as chief if not for the help from the firefighters, the administration and the public.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Felner said of disagreements during his tenure. “The commission has been supportive. We didn’t always agree, but that’s life.”
Felner noted that he’s even had a few disagreements with Deputy Chief Kyran Dunn, who has been on the job less than a year. “He says, ‘I’m here to protect you,’ ” Felner said. “I get a little thick-headed now and then.”
Felner said he believes both McCarthy and Dunn will do a good job leading the Fire Department, and advancing its mission.
As he congratulated Felner at the Fire Commission meeting, First Selectman Michael Tetreau said he was just 18 months old when he first met the future fire chief. “They used to say the only thing faster than the chief on a football field was a fire truck,” Tetreau said. “Chief Felner is definitely an icon when you talk about Fairfield. He’s been the face of the Fire Department and, in some ways, the town.”
Though his retirement is looming, Felner won’t be leaving Fairfield and doesn’t plan on slowing down. “I’ll probably be doing some work with the Ronald McDonald House at Yale,” Felner said. “I’m also a fire safety director in New York with John Jay College.”
What he won’t be doing is puttering around the house. “Dick was never the guy I wrote the ‘honey do’ list to,” wife Linda Felner said. It will be nice to have him home, though, she said. “It’s been a long time.”
Felner was also very sure about what he doesn’t want — a retirement party.
“A lot of people are asking me about a retirement dinner,” the chief said. “I told them, save the money and donate it to the Fairfield Firefighters Foundation in my name and make the money go to a good use.”