BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Bridgeport welcomed 23 new firefighter recruits and a federal grant that will help defray the salary costs of 17 of them for the first few years they are firefighters.
The department unveiled 22 of the 23 new recruits Wednesday. One wasn't able to attend the ceremony due to winding up military requirements. And at least one is enjoying a "second chance" to make a difference in his community.
Joining them for the ceremony were U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, Mayor Joe Ganim and other local dignitaries.
Bridgeport Fire Chief Richard Thode said the money came at the right time.
"The city would not have been able to afford to hire that many people and we need to replace people and we have openings," Thode said.
The new hires bring the department up to its full strength of 288 members, Thode said. The recruits begin their 16 weeks of training at the Connecticut Fire Academy on Monday.
The fire department continues to need to recruit because of ongoing and upcoming retirements, he said. Over 100 of the current fire department staff members have nearly 30 years of experience and many will be retiring soon.
Funding to hire most of the recruit class comes from a federal SAFER grant of $2.7 million awarded to Bridgeport by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grant funds the training and salaries of 17 of the new recruits.
The new firefighter class is made up of 23 men, including 14 Hispanic recruits, five white recruits, three African American recruits and one Asian-American recruit.
Of the 700 original applicants to the Bridgeport Fire Department, 600 passed the entry exam. Of those, the top 50 candidates were selected to undergo evaluation and further testing, including background checks, to narrow the field to the 23 recruits who are now beginning training.
In his speech Ganim thanked Murphy and Blumenthal as well as U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who was not present at the ceremony, for their help in securing the grant.
Ganim also noted that the city continues to attract individuals who have had trouble with the law in the past as part of the second chance returning citizens initiative. Ganim, who spent years in prison on a corruption conviction during his earlier time as mayor, spoke of his second chance.
New recruit Jaimie Medina, 39, is a beneficiary of a second chance.
His father, James, was a lieutenant in the fire department while his uncle Eddie Medina was a captain. However, Medina said he ran into trouble with the law after his parents divorced when he was 18. He said he eventually was able to straighten out his life, get married to his wife Victoria and work for the last 12 years as a Frito-Lay distributor.
Last year, a friend in the department gave him the recruitment flier and urged him to apply.
He said he's thankful for his second chance and believes he can play a role in telling young men that there is hope and a way out for them.
"I like to think that I can be used as an instrument of change," Medina said. "Even if you might have made a mistake, that if you acknowledge why you did it put it past you and move forward. I like to think we live in a nation of second chances and there is opportunity and there's hope and you can be a better man and a better husband and a better dad."
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