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Former East Haven Fire Chief joined the Shore Line Trolley Museum after leaving his position at the state level. Now, he works at the University of New Haven teaching the next generation of emergency responders and serves as president of the museum to help preserve the past. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Whether it’s as deputy commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security or as president of the East Haven Trolley Museum, former East Haven fire chief Wayne Sandford is committed to preservation and safety.
“I love being a firefighter,” the current volunteer firefighter says, though he notes that he’s far less active than he used to be. “I really don’t go to calls. I listen—I’m nosy—I listen all the time to the fire calls in East Haven.”
Wayne started out as a volunteer firefighter with Bradford Manor when he was 18 and he never really stopped. He later earned his professional firefighter certification and, beginning in 1984, taught fire science part-time at the University of New Haven (UNH) as he was moving up the professional firefighting ranks, capped off by taking the role of East Haven fire chief in 1992. He was appointed by then-governor Jodi Rell to be deputy commissioner of the Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security under Governor Rell in 2005, serving through 2009. Upon retiring from that position, he took a full-time position to run a master’s program in emergency management at UNH, where he remains today.
“I get students from all of the world that typically have had some kind of a problem and their country will send them to UNH,” Wayne says.
After the 2015 Mina Stampede during which many Muslims were crushed by overcrowding during Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia sent a group of students to UNH to learn how to better manage crowds and respond to tragedies.
“When the Hajj happens…they now have this team of individuals that we trained and now they’re back managing this event,” Wayne says.
Two of Wayne’s other students worked in North Carolina during Hurricane Florence.
“It’s quite exciting to run a program like this and have an impact all over the United States and around the world,” he says.
When his career shifted to teaching full time, he also pivoted to preserving not just people, but their history, too.
After a visit with his grandchildren to the Shore Line Trolley Museum, Wayne found a new place to pitch in.
“I joined [the museum], that was in November , and then in March I took the [trolley] operator class and as they say, the rest is history,” he says.
Wayne has filled many roles in the organization since he joined. He and his wife, Christine, still help out with many of the programs at the museum.
The museum holds Pumpkin Patch for kids during the month of October and Haunted Isle, a tour through spooky skits concocted by East Haven and Branford high schoolers every weekend until Halloween starting the last week of September.
“I will tell you, I do not go through the Haunted Isle,” Wayne says. “I am not a scare person.”
Now, Wayne serves as president of the trolley museum.
“I love old [rail] cars,” Wayne says. “They’re mechanical, they’re history…We’re just history nuts.”
He says that he and Christine always look for historical sites when they travel. But there’s history on the rails, too.
“When this line was put in, 300 people lived in Branford,” Wayne says. “In 10 years, Branford became a place to live and people rode the trolley that way to work in New Haven.”
Wayne says that the museum’s goal is to be known as “the trolley museum” in the United States. There aren’t many left in the U.S., and Wayne wants East Haven’s to be the “last trolley museum standing.”
“[Trolleys] changed America from 1900 until World War II,” Wayne said. “That’s history that is lost.”
Trolleys are a passion for many who work at the museum. Operators come from as far away as Vermont and California to drive on the last remaining one and a half miles of the New Haven Trolley Line.
“The operators get to pick the car that they’re going to use,” Wayne says. “I like car 4573….It’s an open car, so when you operate it, you ride in the car and you’re getting the breeze.”
Car 4573, originally from Brooklyn, was flooded when Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy struck. The storms devastated 97 of the museum’s 100 trolleys. It’s only been through fundraising and FEMA grants that have enabled the organization to rebuild.
The two new buildings, which store the repaired trolley cars, have been built 15 inches higher than the floodwaters of the ‘38 hurricane, placing the historical cars hopefully out of reach of future storms.
“We’re going to be able to display cars that we were never able to display,” he says.
Wayne is also a deacon in the Catholic faith and a volunteer, with Christine, at the East Haven Food Pantry.
“To me, if people don’t volunteer…they’re missing out,” he says. “I think that’s why I became a firefighter. You help people. On their worst possible day, you’re there to help them.”
Wayne Sandford’s commitment to the community on so many levels led to his nomination and selection for a Beacon Award, given annually by Shore Publishing/Zip06.com to 15 volunteers who selflessly step up to help fulfill the shoreline community’s promise as a place of opportunity, wellbeing, and safety for all. He will be honored in a ceremony held on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Water’s Edge Resort & Spa in Westbrook. For more information on the honorees and tickets, visit www.beaconawardsct.com.