This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published September 23, 2020
Shaun Heffernan was still in Branford High School (BHS) when he went over to the Indian Neck firehouse and signed up with Volunteer Company No. 9. On Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, Branford Fire Department (BFD) and the Town of Branford recognized BFD Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal Shaun Heffernan upon retiring from a remarkable 32 years tied to the town’s fire service.
The BHS Class of 1990 alumnus was 17 when he first joined up as a volunteer. He says his decision to get involved with BFD was settled at an even younger age, thanks to growing up in a neighborhood shared by the firefighting families of past Branford fire chiefs Peter Mullen and Jack Ahern.
“I grew up on Toole Drive with the Mullens and the Aherns, so growing up I always saw them going out to calls,” says Shaun. “So when I became old enough, I joined Indian Neck, and then the summer after I graduated high school, I became an EMT.”
Shaun continued volunteering with Co. 9 and followed up his emergency medical technician (EMT) certification by attending paramedic school on his path to undertaking a career in firefighting. In 1995, he was just finishing up paramedic school when he was hired to join the town’s emergency dispatch team.
“I never applied anywhere else,” Shaun says. “I only applied to Branford.”
Shaun worked part-time at the new police station, where Branford had recently combined the dispatch center to include police, fire, and EMS response. In February of 1998, BFD hired Shaun as a full-time professional firefighter/paramedic.
Over the years, Branford has grown and so has the service provided by BFD, says Shaun.
“I’m just amazed at how Branford has grown in the 32 years I’ve been with the department—not only as a town, but as a department,” he says. “And [BFD] continues to stay on the forefront, especially on the EMT end of it. It is without a doubt the envy of many towns both for the care they deliver and revenue it generates to offset the tax cost of the fire department. The town is continuously getting calls from other departments asking, ‘What are you doing, and how can we replicate that?’”
Shaun says he’s also pretty sure folks recognize the span of responses and realm of responsibilities provided by BFD.
“I think the residents in Branford are really appreciative, because when people don’t know who else to call, whether it’s an animal issue or a smell in the neighborhood, they call the fire department,” says Shaun. “And the majority of the time we’re able to provide guidance, and if we’re not, then hopefully we refer them to the right people who can.”
Shaun also thanks Branford’s many volunteer firefighters for all they do to contribute to this town.
“Branford’s got a phenomenal group of volunteers,” says Shaun. “They’re dedicated, and without them, the tax burden for our fire department would be very large.”
Moving Up the Ladder
In 2000, Shaun followed his interest in fire investigation and went to school to become certified as a fire marshal, taking eight-hour classes on Saturdays for about a year and half. Fire marshals also keep learning, with 90 hours of continuing education required every three years.
Shaun soon took on the part-time post of deputy fire marshal for the town while continuing his career as a paramedic/firefighter. In 2006, Shaun was promoted to BFD assistant chief/fire marshal.
In 2015, Shaun was called to serve as Branford’s acting fire chief upon the retirement of Chief Jack Ahern. While he valued the opportunity to help lead the department for nine months as acting chief, Shaun decided not to pursue the role as the next step in his career.
“I had very young children at the time, and I needed the flexibility to be around for their things,” says Shaun, who lives in North Branford with his wife, Jody and their son Tyler and daughter Carolyn.
Shaun says he will miss working alongside Chief Tom Mahoney, who began the role in August 2015.
Helping Branford Through Significant Events
Looking back over the years he’s served with BFD, Shaun says “we’ve had a lot of significant [fire] events in Branford.”
He was a dispatcher on duty on Thanksgiving Day in 1997 when the Floors & More store fire/building collapse took the life of Stony Creek volunteer firefighter Edward Ramos. Shaun was also on duty at dispatch in 1998 when fire broke out in the basement of Castellon’s Bakery, devastating a huge chunk of Main Street. In 2006, Shaun’s work as the town’s fire marshal was brought to focus on the arson-murder of the late Kathy Hardy in a Short Beach house fire on Little Bay Lane.
As with that case and others, deliberating the cause of a fire requires careful assessment, study, and expertise.
“That creates a lot of frustration for reporters, sometimes,” Shaun says.
He says it was important to always be “100 percent sure that we were confident in the cause before we released it,” he says.
Shaun was on shift the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 when the terrorist attacks began in New York City.
“We were in the dayroom going through shift roll call. We had the TV on in the background when the first plane hit,” he recalls.
As the day went on, personnel pivoted to be ready to assist, including preparing for an influx of potential victims needing transport to local hospitals. In the days that followed, they began to try to absorb the impact of the loss of their fellow first responders’ lives.
Much of the stress felt by firefighters in their work may not be so visible to the public, Shaun says.
“Over the years, there have been a lot of things that have taxed and stressed first responders, most recently, COVID,” says Shaun. “The resilience of our firefighter/paramedics has been amazing the past six months in going out there and putting themselves in harms’ way with every patient they treat.”
While he says he never expected to experience a global pandemic, especially in his final year of service, Shaun notes his final few weeks on the job in Branford recently didn’t go quietly, either.
“I thought I was on the down-swing, and then we have a tropical storm and an almost-tornado strike the town,” he says. “After the tropical storm, I was thinking, ‘Well, that’ll be my last time in the emergency operations center.’ And then two weeks later, there I am, sitting there at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Shaun has also grown with BFD from its physical headquarters space in the former fire house to the new building, dedicated in 2012, at 45 North Main Street. On a personal note, he feels a highlight of his career was helping to bring in the new Indian Neck/Pine Orchard Co. 9 Firehouse. Shaun was a member of the building oversight committee. The new volunteer firehouse opened in late 2019 and was officially dedicated in January 2020.
“I was really excited, because the first day I walked into Station 9 as a volunteer when I was 17 years old, they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a new building soon,’” says Shaun. “So it was really cool to go through this building project over the last couple of years and to finally see that come to fruition.”
While he’s completed his career with BFD, he does plan to continue keeping up his fire marshal certification as a consultant. He’s also already on a path to begin his next chapter in a job dedicated to helping others. Shaun recently entered nursing school, fulltime, at Gateway Community College, and is on track to become a registered nurse in two years’ time.
“What I really missed was the patient care part of being a paramedic,” says Shaun.
Keeping Ties to Camp Rising Sun
Another role Shaun plans to continue is his volunteer work as director of Camp Rising Sun. He’s now in his 12th year as director and his 22nd year as a volunteer with the non-profit program, which provides carefree camp experiences with medical support and more for Connecticut kids with cancer in their lives. He plans to continue contributing as director and is looking forward to supporting the growth and mission of the non-profit.
Shaun was attending Leukemia Society fundraiser back in 1998 when a friend asked him if he might want to volunteer as a counselor at Camp Rising Sun. Shaun said “Yes” and took a week off to volunteer at the camp that summer.
“I came back so energized by the resilience of these kids, that I got hooked early on,” says Shaun.
Shaun’s ties to Branford have also helped to raise shoreline area awareness—and financial support—for Camp Rising Sun, even though its camper base is spread far across the state.
“Branford has been phenomenal to Camp Rising Sun,” says Shaun. “Our connections to the Branford community have been absolutely awesome.”
Several years ago, with generous assistance from Owenego Inn and Beach Club co-owners John and Pat Bloomquist, Shaun moved the program’s annual Night Out summer fundraising event to Branford.
“We had been having the event in New Haven and had outgrown it, so I went knocking on John and Pat’s door,” says Shaun. “They were all for it, and it’s been phenomenal ever since. It’s definitely the single largest fundraiser in Branford.”
COVID-19 restrictions canceled the event this year, but it will back, bigger and better than ever, under the big tent next year, says Shaun.
Camp Rising Sun has also become the beneficiary of Branford-based Premiere Subaru’s annual Share the Love event as a local charity, thanks to the efforts of Premiere’s president Robert Alvine, says Shaun.
“I had made some contacts with Bob, and one of his employee’s [children] is also a camper, so that made for a great connection for what has been a huge supporter for us and helped us to expand,” says Shaun.
Shaun also sits on the Board of Advisors for YMCA Camp Jewell in the northwest corner of Connecticut. Several years back, also served as board president Branford-based Orchard Adult Medical Day Care for six years.
A Fond Farewell
Typical to his humble nature, Shaun asked the town to keep his farewell exit “really low key,” he says.
On Sept. 11, Shaun was thanked with some commemorative gifts from the town and others during a brief ceremony and gathering at Branford Fire Headquarters, attended by members of the Fire Commission, town employees, and members of the department.
He was congratulated on his years of service with presentations from Chief Mahoney and Branford First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, among others.
“It was a perfect goodbye,” says Shaun.