When a was sighted at a North Main Street synagogue recently, the threat sparked a fierce public safety counterpunch seldom seen in West Hartford.
Squads of police, fire and emergency medical personnel were dispatched in large force to a quiet neighborhood in a practiced plan of action. Streets were closed and heavily armed officers sealed a protective perimeter.
Behind the scenes, alerts were transmitted to police across the state.
Across the street, a neighbor of said he assumed it was a hostage situation. Instead it was a false alarm, police said. The gun was a toy from a rummage sale.
The response, however, opened a view into the world of public safety officials such as West Hartford fire Chief William Austin, who will become the first Homeland Security coordinator for the Capitol Region Council of Governments on Aug. 5.
“Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve been heavily involved in the regionalization [of first-responders] in Connecticut,” Austin said last week. “Kind of unknowingly I’ve been building this second career. It didn’t start out that way. But suddenly there’s a market for the sort of skills I’ve developed.”
Being first to meet a challenge is second-nature to Austin, who will step down Friday as chief after 15 years. A highlight of his 40-year career in four states was revitalizing West Hartford’s fire department after his hire in 1996.
“When I came here in 1996, very candidly, it was everybody for themselves,” Austin said. “We got out of that. The camaraderie has always been here. But if you’re not getting leadership people expect to come out of the chief of the department, it just kind of leaves people bewildered.”
In 2006, Austin, 64, received a master’s degree in defense and homeland security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He was the second fire chief in the nation to graduate from the program, designed to develop strategies to prevent domestic terror – or respond to it.
“Before 9/11, basically I was a fire chief,” Austin said. “After 9/11 this transformation took place; not only here but in fire services across the United States. It transcended standard emergency management … As a nation we realized we were vulnerable. Also as a nation, people began to realize very quickly that there had to be an answer.”
For the capitol region, with a population of about 1.3 million in 42 municipalities, the answer was Austin.
“You have to respect, and believe, the commitment a terrorist makes,” Austin said.
Raised in Richmond, Va., Austin said he once imagined a career at second base for the Orioles. At 21, he became a firefighter in Richmond after two years in college and a hitch in the Navy.
He stepped up to chief in Harrisonburg, Va., then in Howard County, Md., and Tampa, Fla. He was chosen in 1996 by West Hartford’s former town manager, Barry Feldman, to revive a department buffeted by dissent and low morale. By most accounts at the time, a shakeup was overdue.
“I wasn’t hired here just to be the chief firefighter,” Austin said. “In the old days, whoever looked the role got the job.”
Austin was the ultimate outsider, a Southern-raised, easy-talking non-conformist faithful to fresh ideas. Now, he said, the inside never looked better.
“We have quality people. We have people who can carry us into the future for several generations,” Austin said. “I’ve always practiced the philosophy of developing leaders.”
On Tuesday, assistant Chief Gary Allyn was named acting chief. "A decision on the process for hiring a new chief has not been made," Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said.
“Like I’ve told my boss, there are four or five people here in the department, and you really don’t have to go outside” for a new chief, Austin said. “We have an excellent group of young officers in this department who have been handpicked for the positions they’re in. I have all the confidence in the world this department.”
Austin’s system has produced nine fire chiefs – two from his West Hartford term, including East Hartford Chief John Oates and former Ipswich, Mass., Chief Arthur Howe.
“I’m talking about a system where you let people learn, and you let them make mistakes,” he said. “People understand they’re being given a chance to show what they can do. That’s why I’m very proud of the officers we have here, everybody we have here.”
Regionally, Austin said resources that exist now were barely second thoughts before 9/11.
“Response teams, policies and procedure, agency involvement at the local, state and federal levels – a paradigm shift has occurred from those lazy, hazy days [before 9/11],” Austin said. “Now we practice for mass casualty incidents. We practice for mass evacuations. Connecticut now knows how to divert traffic out of the state if necessary. The knowledge is in place.”
While serving as West Hartford’s top firefighter, Austin has also filled multiple government posts in regional public safety.
“To keep that functioning smoothly in the capitol region will be a huge challenge,” Austin said. “We’ve been having an impact. We will try to continue to do that and step it up. You saw the type of response that occurred at Agudas Achim.”