Coast to coast move for Fire Chief Reginald Freeman
Steven Goode, Hartford Courant
When Reginald Freeman came to Hartford in February 2016 to become the 37th chief of the Hartford Fire Department, he had no shortage of internal and external blazes to deal with.
A little over two years before his hiring, firefighter Kevin Bell was killed in a house fire on Blue Hills Avenue. It was the department’s first line-of-duty death in 40 years. Outside investigations found that the department had failed to maintain vital breathing apparatus, and an internal review concluded that there were numerous mistakes made responding to the fire and that personnel lacked proper training, which contributed to Bell’s death. His family announced in November that it intended to sue the city.
Former Chief Carlos Huertas also faced criticism following a spate of high-profile, alcohol-related incidents and arrests involving on- and off-duty firefighters. He also drew unwanted media attention after deciding to send out a department-wide email warning staff about an upcoming DUI patrol being conducted by Hartford police.
Now, a little over five years later, Freeman feels confident that the work he has done to address those issues through training and accountability leave the department ready to move forward without him.
“I’m truly proud of what we accomplished,” said Freeman, 42, who will leave to become the fire chief in Oakland, Calif. His last day is May 14. “I’m most proud of how membership responded to a plethora of changes.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said in a release Wednesday that the city has been fortunate to have one of the best fire chiefs in the nation for the last five years, and that it was bittersweet to see Freeman move on.
“Chief Freeman has led our fire department with great distinction, and he has earned the trust and respect of all of us in city government, as well as residents across Hartford.” Bronin said. “He has been an incredibly effective advocate for our firefighters, hiring new classes of diverse recruits, making sure we’re training our firefighters, and leading the process to make the Hartford Fire Department one of the few in the nation to be internationally accredited and hold the highest insurance rating.
Bronin said Assistant Chief Rodney Barko, a 25-year veteran of the department, would serve as interim chief.
Among his accomplishments, Freeman cited his successful relationship with labor, international accreditation, the department’s first professional development program, instructional accreditation for firefighters, equipment upgrades, and a push to fully staff the department with an eye towards minority hiring.
“We were grossly understaffed,” Freeman said.
Freeman was an assistant chief in Hartford from 2011 to 2013 before leaving to become fire chief for Lockheed Martin’s aeronautic headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. He returned to Hartford in 2016.
Freeman said he was contacted by a search firm from Oakland during the winter and was intrigued by the opportunity to lead a larger department that also has a proud history.
The department has 25 firehouses compared to Hartford’s 11.
Freeman spoke about a 2016 fire in Oakland that killed 36 people and said his initial focus would be to focus on community risk reduction and assessments related to fire safety.
“That tragedy and challenges, I thought it was something that I could rectify,” he said.
Anne Goshdigian, a Hartford resident and local writer, said that Freeman that “created trust” in the community.
But she also noted the 18 months that he spent simultaneously working as the interim director of public works.
“When he was running DPW he would respond [on Facebook] very rapidly,” Goshdigian said. “You could call him and he would get back to you. It was like a whole new world.”
Retired Hartford Deputy Chief Dan Nolan was disappointed to learn of Freeman’s departure.
“When he came in the department was in dire straits. There was no camaraderie, no leadership at the top,” Nolan said. “It was disgraceful.”
Nolan said Freeman changed the morale and culture in the department and the community through his willingness to get to know his firefighters and residents.
“I would hate to see the department go in a different direction again,” he said.
Freeman said he leaves with no regrets or feelings that he left something unfinished.
“It’s a great department, it’s a great city,” he said.
Steven Goode can be reached at email@example.com.
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