Newly Appointed Connecticut Chief Praised, Criticized

Updated: 05-24-2006 02:11:09 PM

Connecticut Post Online (Bridgeport, Connecticut)

BRIDGEPORT -- Brian Rooney, a 34-year veteran of the Fire Department, became the city's 15th fire chief Tuesday amid applause from supporters and criticism by the leaders of three groups representing black and Hispanic firefighters.

Ten people carrying signs protested outside the City Hall ceremony.

Rooney first took over the department on a temporary basis after Michael Maglione retired in February 2005 to head Waterbury's fire department. Mayor John M. Fabrizi chose Rooney, who was ranked second on the fire chief exam held by an independent consultant hired by the Civil Service Department, based in part on his long career in the Fire Department.

"It's a great honor to be appointed the fire chief," Rooney told a standing-room-only crowd, including firefighters and chiefs from other communities.

"I'm just as excited as you can imagine," he said. "I'm ready to provide the leadership the Fire Department really needs.

"For the mayor to pick me as part of his team, I'm really impressed. I'm really proud," said Rooney, a Bridgeport native.

"I was born here, raised here. I know the city well," he added.

His daughter, Mardele Lorenson, pinned his badge on his navy blue dress uniform. Other members of Rooney's family also attended.

After the testing process narrowed the field to three candidates, Fabrizi said his staff scrutinized them based on standards including dedication to fire safety and a "demonstrated record of achievement."

"Brian Rooney has fulfilled those qualifications," Fabrizi said.

Stuart Rosenberg, chairman of the city Board of Fire Commissioners, said Rooney's tenure in the Fire Department was a boon.

"Rooney brought to the selection process what no one else did," he said.

"Any time a homegrown member of the Fire Department can achieve the rank of chief, that says it all," he added.

However, before the ceremony, critics blasted Rooney's credentials.

Rooney has a high school diploma, while the first-ranked candidate has two bachelor's degrees, two master's degrees and a doctorate. The third-ranked candidate has an associate's degree in fire science and is a candidate for a master's degree.

"And we choose a high school graduate," said Ron Mackey, a retired city firefighter and president of the Firebird Society, a group for black firefighters.

Donald Day, another retired firefighter and president of the Northeast Region of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, said hiring one of the two rejected candidates would not have cost the city any more money.

The fire chief is paid a $102,793 annual salary.

The Bridgeport Hispanic Firefighters Association opposed Rooney because of an alleged connection to the Bridgeport Firefighters for Merit Employment, a group of white firefighters whose stated goal is to support the city's civil service rules in hiring and ********* based on merit.

The three minority groups accuse the BFME of racism. Rooney has denied ties to the group.

Day and Mackey added that Fabrizi should have followed civil service rules and picked one of the other candidates based on their credentials.

Fire Inspector Ismael Hernandez III, treasurer of the Hispanic group, carried a sign accusing Rooney of helping to circulate a rumor that members of the Firebirds cheated on a lieutenant exam in 1999.

The three groups had made the same accusation in February 2005 when Rooney was tapped as acting chief. Rooney's reply at the time was a vow to work with the groups.

Rooney has a five-year contract with the city as chief; he is limited to two five-year terms. The mayor must reappoint him for the second term.

Fabrizi defended the new chief.

"Their comments are so shallow," he said of the critics. "To me, they're just looking for excuses, as usual."

Fabrizi praised Rooney for his leadership in the Safe Asleep program, the goal of which is to place smoke detectors in every city home.

Eleven people have died in fires in the city over about a year. In most cases, smoke detectors either didn't work or were absent.

Ralph Jacobs, the city's personnel director, attended the ceremony and defended the test.

The exam was designed by experts in testing for fire chiefs, he said.

Rooney ranked second by "drawing on 34 years of experience," Jacobs said.

The testing shows that education does not necessarily make a candidate the best choice for fire chief, he added.

Aaron Leo, who covers regional issues, can be reached at 330-6222.