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Hartford Fire Chief Retiring Then It's Back To School

STEVEN GOODE

November 20, 2009

HARTFORD - When Charles A. Teale Sr. was a young man growing up in the city, the last place anyone could find him was inside a classroom.

His life was going downhill, fast.

"I made a complete mess of it," Teale said. "I dropped out of school when I was 14 and drifted. I lied about my age and went from one bad job to the next."

But he made a decision to seek out Walter "Doc" Hurley, a legendary figure in Hartford, for advice. And once he got straightened out, Teale developed a thirst for knowledge that led him to multiple college degrees and, ultimately, to the top job in Hartford's fire department.

Now, after 27 years in the department, including the last nine as chief, Teale is retiring so he can get back to the classroom.

"It's just the fact that I have missed school so badly," said Teale, who plans to pursue a doctorate in psychology.

Teale, the 35th chief in the department's 220-year history, said he wants to become a psychologist so he can help young men handle the transition to adulthood better than he did.

The chief remembered his own journey, which brought him to the North End doorstep of Hurley, who was vice principal of Weaver High School. There, Teale confessed that he had made many mistakes and feared he might end up in prison, or dead.

"I said, 'Can you help me out here?'" Teale recalled, pausing with emotion.

Hurley invited him in and got right to the point.

He said, "You need an education," Teale remembered.

With the help of Hurley and a counselor at Hartford State Technical College who reminded him of the sacrifices his ancestors had made to give him a better life, Teale started hitting the books.

He earned a GED, then took one course each semester for nine years at Hartford State (now Capital Community College), and earned an associate's degree in fire technology.

Then it was on to Springfield College, where he earned a bachelor's degree two years later, and the University of Hartford for a master's degree in public administration.

Teale was about to return to college again to pursue a doctorate in public administration when he was tapped for the fire chief's job in March 2000, following the tumultuous five-year run of Chief Robert E. Dobson. Dobson's tenure was marked by miscues small and large, from being absent during a firehouse blessing to being suspended for three weeks in 1999 for misuse of department time and vehicles.

"Going to school and being chief was not an option," Teale said.

Teale, a meticulous, no-nonsense leader who stressed accountability, set about restoring order and professionalism in the department. He said he's proud of the changes and accomplishments on his watch, including maintaining Hartford's status as one of only 41 Class 1 fire departments out of 38,000 departments in the country.

Teale started compiling a list of his accomplishments in the department, with the hope of reaching 100 while he was chief. His list, which stands at 89, includes steps to modernize the department and reduce costs, improving organization and preserving the department's history.

He said one of the things he's most proud of is the steady decline in structure fires, from 366 in 2001 to 80 in 2008. He attributed the drop to increased educational efforts by the department.

Teale said he also is proud to have been able to promote Edward Casares as the first Hispanic firefighter to be fire marshal, and Carol Stiles as the first woman to be deputy chief.

But Teale, 54, said there have been tragedies, as well, including the drowning death of a firefighter in the Farmington River shortly after Teale became acting chief and the suicides of two firefighters.

Then there was the Greenwood Health Center fire in 2003, which killed 16 people. Investigators concluded that the nursing home fire was started by a woman with a history of mental illness and substance abuse who had been playing with a lighter in her bed.

"That hit hard because the department hadn't seen anything like it since the Hartford Hospital fire in 1961," he said. "Everything pales in comparison to that."

The hospital fire, which started in a trash chute in the basement, also claimed the lives of 16. It was thought to have started when someone threw a lit cigarette or emptied an ashtray into the chute.

After the Greenwood fire, Teale volunteered to break the news to the families of the victims. In the aftermath, he said, he developed a "bona fide sleep disorder" and sought psychological counseling.

That wasn't the only toll the job has taken on Teale, who acknowledged that he wasn't fully prepared for the stress, hate mail or the backlash from firefighters and friends over some of his unpopular promotion and disciplinary decisions.

"I lost some people's respect for making tough decisions," he said. "I thought if I was upfront and honest, everyone would understand."

Teale doesn't count among his hardest calls the firing earlier this year of Deputy Chief of Training Dan Nolan, formerly one of his staunchest supporters. Nolan is appealing his dismissal, which followed charges that he abused his authority, jeopardized the health and safety of recruits and provided false statements to a superior officer.

"Like all disciplinary issues, I used the facts and did what I had to do," Teale said.

Steve Harris, a former city councilman and retired firefighter, said the consensus about Teale in the department is that, in good times and bad, he was fair.

"Everybody gets the same treatment," said Harris, who served on the council's public safety committee that recommended Teale for chief.

Capt. Anthony Taylor said Teale was one of the most sensible men the department has ever had as a leader.

Teale will stay on until April to help his successor get settled. He said his advice to that person would be to maintain the merit-based system of promotion and stick with it. "Otherwise you lose credibility," he said.

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez congratulated Teale on his retirement and commended him for his public service and strong leadership.

"Chief Teale is an outstanding role model and an excellent example of homegrown talent," Perez said.

Teale said he is grateful for the opportunity to serve the city, its residents and the department. It's been rewarding, he said, to see firefighters come on the job, rise through the ranks and improve their lives.

Now he hopes to do the same for young men in Hartford.

"I really do think I can make a difference," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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