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Monday, May 29, 2017

Fire Department Honors ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’

By James Lomuscio

Unlike last Memorial Day when he spoke via satellite from Afghanistan to his fellow firefighters, Westport Firefighter James Branson, a medic in the Naval Reserve, gave today’s address back home.

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Firefighter James Branson addressed today’s Westport Fire Department Memorial Day ceremony in person this year.  (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

His words at the Fire Department’s memorial service at Fire Headquarters were sobering, fitting for a rainy day in which the parade had been canceled, the unofficial start of summer postponed.

Branson spoke about the 400,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery, the 1.8 million service members killed since 1775, and the 52,000 wounded since Sept. 11, 2001, “physical and emotional wounds.”

“Today is for those who never came home and for those who brought the war home with them,” he said referencing those who “lost the final battle to suicide.”

One who came home and thrived in service to others was Denis Duffy, who joined the Westport Fire Department July 1, 1966 only to have his time on the department interrupted by Vietnam.

He spent 37 years battling fires and town emergencies before retiring in 2003, and today, his 50th Memorial Day sporting a firefighter’s uniform, Duffy was awarded a commendation from First Selectman Jim Marpe.

Seven other present firefighters who served in the military were also noted. They were: Lt. Jonathan Piper; Firefighter Peter Nichio; Inspector Nicholas Marsan; Firefighter Justin Harelik; Firefighter Robert Lee; Firefighter Christopher Balich; and Dispatcher Kenneth Gilbertie.

The ceremony was a recognition of service, both in the military and for the town. For Duffy it was a time for fraternity with the town’s bravest.

“My first Memorial Day parade was 1967,” Duffy recalled. “I was on duty, and right after the parade I responded to a house fire on North Compo Road.”

Duffy recalled being a one-man response team operating out of the old Vigilant Fire House on Wilton Road, and he said that as he raced to the fire, his fellow firefighters who had been marching cheered him on.

He lauded the fact that at least one (Saugatuck) of today’s three out stations are now manned by three firefighters; two others, Coleytown and Greens Farms, have only two.

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Retirees include: (top, l-r) Fire Marshal Ed Zygmant; Assistant Chief John Plofkin; (bottom) Deputy Chief Bob Kepchar, and Assistant Chief Ken Lombardi. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

“This is a team effort,” he said.

Then Duffy said something that resonated was a veritable subtext to the loss of those devoted to service.

“A lot of you guys I worked with are going to be retiring and joining me in the ranks here,” he said.

As of Thursday, June 1, 11 firefighters will be among this year’s retirees.

They include; former Chief Andrew Kingsbury; Deputy Chief Robert Kepchar (staying on in an advisory capacity until September); Assistant Chief John Plofkin; Fire Marshal Ed Zygmant; Assistant Chief Ken Lombardi; Lt. Joe Izzo; Lt. Reggie Stone; Lt. Ernie Ruot; Firefighter Mike Massaria; and Capt. Peter Janulis.

The years of service for each range from 21 to 36, and the rub was that they did not want to retire but were doing so because of stalled contract negotiations now in state-mandated binding arbitration. The town wants veteran firefighters, not just new hires, to have defined contributions, not defined benefits.

Seeing the writing on the wall, many have decided to retire before the fiscal year ends.

“We have to worry about our families now,” Plofkin said. “My whole career I have spent worrying about the families of Westport.”

Plofkin also bemoaned the loss of experience and knowledge of longtime employees.

Still, that sense of belonging to the department and being there for future ceremonial events would not be lost with the retirees, to hear Duffy tell it.

“It’s a wonderful life,” Duffy said about being a firefighter, “and I hope to see you all here next year.”

Fire Chief Rob Yost also honored five Westport firefighters who gave their lives in the line of duty: Fire Chief Frank L. Dennert and Firefighters Francis T. Dunnigan, John H. Gallagher and Dominick J. Zeoli who died fighting a truck fire on May 2, 1946, and George Cardozo, the department’s photographer, who died of a heart attack following a 2000 house fire.

He said their names will be added to each new fire pumper put into service so present members will always remember them.

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Posted 05/29/17 at 10:45 AM  Permalink



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