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Coffee with … Fire Department Chief Greg Priest

Fire Chief Greg Priest in his office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Fire Chief Greg Priest recently sat down with Ronni Newton for a light-hearted conversation about the man behind the job. ‘Coffee with …’ is a monthly feature that appears in West Hartford LIFE. This piece appeared in the December 2019 issue.

By Ronni Newton

Greg Priest became chief of the West Hartford Fire Department on Nov. 10, 2018, after joining the department as assistant chief just a few months earlier. He formerly served as chief of the University of Connecticut Fire Department and associate director of public safety for UConn. Prior to that he was a deputy chief stationed at the UConn Health Center in Farmington and had worked extensively with the West Hartford Fire Department in mutual aid and emergency services roles.

Priest grew up in Avon, and after second grade began attending Renbrook School in West Hartford. “I actually have some connections in the West Hartford community that go back quite a-ways,” he said.

He attended Avon Old Farms and graduated from Avon High School.

“After I got out of high school, I had done a lot of volunteer firefighting, volunteer EMS, and I thought it would be interesting … I did a couple of semesters of college but then I went to paramedic school and graduated in 1996 I got my paramedic and then I got hired at UConn shortly thereafter.”

Priest said he took a “non-traditional path” to completing his college degree. “I did a lot of training in my respective disciplines,” he said, and in 2003 became a police officer as well. “Out of those trainings I ended up with an associate degree in paramedic studies from Capital Community College,” he said, and then a bachelor’s degree from Charter Oak College just a few years ago. Priest said he is trying to mentor the West Hartford firefighters regarding the benefits of a formal education in addition to their firefighter studies. He said he believes college exposes you to things you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to and brings in a diversity of thought.

Priest lives in Salem, CT. He is divorced and has a son (7) and daughter (6), both in elementary school.

Over a cup of coffee in his office at the West Hartford Fire Department headquarters on Raymond Road, Priest responded to the following questions.

Coffee order: I take my coffee black. Hot coffee, absolutely, never cold coffee. When I switch away from caffeine I’ll go to tea.

Occupation: Chief of the West Hartford Fire Department.

Perception vs. Reality: I would say that a lot of the fire service is very similar, there are a lot of commonalities … My goal was to be the assistant chief. I was looking forward to being the assistant chief, I thought it was a good transition for me moving from what you would call a proprietary department that protects a unique community switching into a municipal department. … As things rolled out I was honored … so when I was offered the opportunity to be the chief, I was already engendered to the department, I felt the quality of the people here was something that I wanted to take on that challenge. I think it was a change but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as different as I thought it would be.

Why this profession: I don’t quite know why I chose it because I was so young. I was 14 years old when I started to get into the fire service, so I was drawn to the allure of service to others, that people were bonding together to provide something back to the community. My family background was very huggy, and loving, and wanting to nurture and help others. … At age 14 then there was the allure of fire trucks, you get to be exposed to a lot of situations. It started early and then I progressed through my career. I never sought to be THE chief, I just tried to learn my job, and then my boss’ job so I could do that when he wasn’t around … and here I am.

Best advice received: I like the Golden Rule, with a little bit of empathy. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and putting them in the position that you’re exposing them to and trying to understand where they are and respond to them appropriately – that could be compassion, firmness.

Title of your autobiography: “My Dad.” That gives me the opportunity to talk about my dad, gives me the opportunity to talk about how I am as a father and those are the things that are important. Of course, I don’t want to leave my mother out of the equation …

Top of your bucket list: I think I would like to know what’s next in life. I don’t necessarily know that subscribe to “I want to travel to Bali,” or something like that. Even at 42 years old I haven’t figured out exactly what I want to do terminally at the end. I’m constantly looking to the future and moving forward but learning in life that you can’t predict things.

No one would suspect: I picked up an unusual penchant for techno-music while I was working at UConn … Sometimes the music is pumping in here and I play it loud, and I’m jamming.

Biggest fear: Professionally it’s not the fear of the unknown … but it’s the things that we’re not expecting, haven’t planned for, when things start to go awry.

Biggest adrenaline rush: I like the fires, the emergencies. I know that it’s tough for the folks that are experiencing them but that’s where the reasons why I joined this business become most prevalent, most visible. It’s exciting in a good way, it’s measurable because that’s what you’ve trained for and you’re putting those skills to use. I miss being a paramedic tremendously, there was a lot of adrenaline there. … I also get a lot of adrenaline rushes with my kids.

Skill you would like to master: It’s an impossible skill to master but I’m a student of leadership, a student of people, and I think I can always do better. Every situation is unique. … Truly I watch [West Hartford Police] Chief [Vernon] Riddick, I have a great relationship with him, and I like that leadership.

Words of wisdom for your younger self: Slow down. The biggest challenge for me, personally and professionally, is since I was 14 years old I’ve been in emergency services, and in emergency services you get this big cache of training and at the end of the day when you put those skills to use they are usually being done under time and task compression. You have to make quick and precise decisions. … You refine those skills … as you progress and get to a place in your career when you’re an administrator, a parent, you become so used to making quick decisions based on the information that sometimes that isn’t the greatest thing in the world. Get a little more information, be thoughtful.

Favorite tradition: I go on vacation with my kids usually right after Christmas, that’s one of the presents that they get.

Favorite sport/team: Are you ready for a guy who has spent his career protecting a university with all these big sports teams … I’m really not a sports guy. If you ask me what my favorite sports team it would be the Salem Volunteer Fire Department t-ball team, because I coach my kids’ t-ball. I will watch professional sports, but it’s not my attention span. … I would probably be a fair-weather fan if I had to be. My dad grew up in Boston so I usually trend in that direction, nothing against New York.

Favorite food: I’ll eat anything pretty much. My kids seem to really be into Shepherd’s Pie and I make that quite a lot, so Shepherd’s Pie is where it’s at.

Swore you’d never do, but did: I didn’t think that I was going to get divorced.

What do people not appreciate enough: I don’t necessarily know that we appreciate enough that life is short, and a lot of unexpected and unpredictable things happen. … Life can change quickly and unexpectedly … you have to take things as they are but never take things for granted.

Where everybody knows your name: Inside of the fire department. And there’s a little coffee shop in Salem right on my way to work.

Defining moments: My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That was a very interesting time, a period of time when we understood that something wasn’t quite right and then we watched the progression over a long period of time, and that had a lot of ups and downs in it.

Favorite season: I don’t have a favorite season, it’s usually the first couple of weeks of each season. That’s why I like New England. I like winter in the first couple of weeks of winter – yay, snow it’s nice – and then I get tired of winter. If you’re really nailing me to a wall it’s fall, I really like fall … when it’s warmer during the day and cool at night. I like fires – in the fire pit, not in people’s houses, when you can start up the chimney.

One of your life lessons: You need to treat people at all times the way you want to be treated. … I find that sometimes people treat other people because they can do something for them at that particular moment in time … What I think, my life lesson is that you just have to treat people equally and fairly and don’t think about what they can do for you. I’ve found that that’s paid off dividends. Treating everybody as if they’re a member of your family. That’s a guiding principle I tell everyone who is working for me, because it’s the right thing to do.

Remember me for: I hope my kids think that I’m a good dad at the end of the day, and I hope my family thinks I am a good member of the family, a good sibling, a good son … I would say fair but [that I] held people accountable and they felt that I did my job, and my job is the fire chief and that involves being kind and rewarding people and praising people, and it also involves counseling and coaching and mentoring. And it also involves making sure that we have high standards and the standards are translated to excellent customer service and they feel they’ve been treated well.

Money or longevity: Easily longevity.

Second chance, yes or no: No, I’m fairly happy with how things have gone. I wouldn’t do it over again, I’d probably make decisions differently.

Ten years from now: I don’t necessarily know that I have a defined plan for that. I’m interested in what my kids are doing in 10 years and how I play a role in their life, that’s probably the time that they’ll hate me. … I love the Town of West Hartford, and I hope I do the things to earn the respect and the credibility to continue to stay, but I am also a realist, too. Leaders have to change in an organization for an organization to progress.

Hobbies: I love to boat. I like to fish. I guess you could call it a hobby – I’m still in law enforcement, but that brings in a different perspective. I still hold my certification … It gives me perspective.

Dinner with someone from any age and time: I’ve always been fascinated with Abraham Lincoln. … He had interesting perspectives on leadership but you’re fighting over really core principles. I’d love to talk to him about leadership, how he navigated certain things. The second one, I know the concept I would ask, and it would be about parenting … how to be a parent.

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