BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Richard Thode walked into the firehouse near his Long Island home as an 8-year-old boy and, essentially, never left. His responsibilities have changed, but the roots he planted in Port Washington, N.Y., led to a career as a firefighter and his new role as chief of the Bridgeport Fire Department.
- Who : Richard Thode, Bethel
- What : Recently named Chief for the Bridgeport Fire Department
- Did you know? Thode began his career in Ridgefield and has worked in Bridgeport since 1987
“I was a firehouse brat,’’ said Thode, a Bethel resident and member of the Bridgeport Fire Department for 30 years. “I went the firehouse and I thought this is cool. They made the mistake of saying come back anytime you want, so I did. Those guys raised me in the firehouse.”
Thode was appointed in February to succeed Brian Rooney, who retired in May. He had served as the provisional chief since Rooney’s retirement.
“Chief Thode has demonstrated over the nine months he has served as provisional chief that he is a true leader of the Fire Department and commands deep respect and admiration from the nearly 300 firefighters under his command,’’ Mayor Joe Ganim said in announcing Thode as the new chief.
The promotion comes after a 34-year career as a firefighter for Thode, who worked for four years in Ridgefield before going to Bridgeport.
“They had a ton of retirements in 1987,’’ Thode said. “I joined the rescue company, and at that time it was one of the busiest rescue units in the country. It was great as a young fireman. I got to see and do everything for those first eight years.”
He worked his way up the firehouse ladder, serving as lieutenant, captain and assistant chief. He attended seminars, training and classes at every opportunity and reached the highest certification in the state. “Every time I got into a promotional spot, I thought, ‘OK, I’m good here.' Then I’d find myself saying ‘OK, let’s get to the next stop.’’’
Thode takes over at a time that seems congruent to his start. Over the next few years, the city expects to see the retirement of nearly more than 30 percent of the department.
“We’re doing everything we can to get ready,’’ he said. “Within a few short years, one-third of my department will be gone. We’re trying to head that off. We’ve shown and explained to the city that it’s important to overstock now because we’re going to be losing a lot of veterans with a lot of experience.”
Thode is also opening communication lines within the department.
“They were scared to death to step up,’’ he said. “I’ve asked them to look into this project or that project and tell me how we can do things differently or how we can do it better. I’m blown away at the response. They saw one or two guys do it, and now they’re coming to me all the time. Giving them a little platform has been terrific.”
The budget challenges in Bridgeport will always be a concern. Thode said Ganim has made a commitment to public safety, but he’s also aware the city can’t “spend money like crazy.”
“If we buy a truck that lasts for 20 years, we have to make it last for 25,’’ Thode said.
His career ambitions never deviated after catching the bug in Port Washington, where volunteer service is huge. “They let me do things they wouldn’t let other people do,’’ Thode said. “The first vehicle I ever drove was a brand new pumper. I was 12 or 13 years old and they let me drive it on a dead street. It was really exciting.”
His family moved to Ridgefield when his father worked for Union Carbide. He graduated from high school, joined the volunteer fire department and considered joining the Navy.
“The fire chief called and said don’t go,’’ Thode said. “He said he’d have a job for me by September. That’s what I did.”
He toyed with the idea of joining the New York City Fire Department but felt comfortable in Bridgeport.
While rewarding, he’s also seen his share of tragedy. Seven friends have been killed in the line of duty In 2011. Lt. Steven Velasquez and firefighter Michael Baik died while fighting a blaze on Elmwood Avenue.
“I was at Steven's wedding two weeks before he was killed,’’ Thode said. Of his death, “that was one of the worst days I’ve ever had.”
There are lows and highs for every firefighter. For the next five years, it will be Thode’s job to keep them, and the vast Bridgeport community, safe.
“The biggest realization that hit home is that I’m responsible for so many people and so many things,’’ Thode said. “We want to provide the best service, but we also have to make sure the 288 guys on the department get home at night and we give them the training to do their job.
"Literally, just a few months ago I was in the firehouse doing firefighter stuff. Now I’m an administrator. It’s been a learning experience to have a job that is all kind of new.”
Fortunately for Thode, he still gets his firefighting fix in Bethel as a volunteer with the Stony Hill Fire Department.
“Sometimes it’s just nice to be a grunt firefighter and ride backward in the truck,’’ he said. “Those are times I enjoy not being the boss.”