Greg Hill, who retired last year, was not only the first Black captain of the West Hartford Fire Department, but when he was promoted to lieutenant several years earlier he was the first person of color to become a supervisor.
By Ronni Newton
Until Greg Hill retired in March 2022, West Hartford Fire Department leadership didn’t fully realize quite how many barriers he had broken during his 24-year career.
When Chief Greg Priest took over the department in 2018, Greg Hill was a lieutenant and No. 1 on the list of people to be considered for promotion to captain. Priest promoted him the following year, and Hill ran Station No. 3, but that was shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began and there never ended up being a celebration of the promotion.
“When he announced his retirement, I really slowed down to take a look at how his career went,” Priest said. At that point, early last spring, Hill was recovering from surgery and had been out for a while. But when Hill came in to headquarters to have his retirement papers signed Priest and Chief Hugh O’Callaghan spent some time speaking with him about his experiences and his career progression in West Hartford.
“We kind of stopped and just listened,” Priest said. “He had some remarkable experience, both good and bad.” Priest, who has been strongly promoting community outreach and the removal of barriers, was very eager to hear what Hill had to say.
“I’m really impressed with him,” Priest said.
Hill remains very humble.
“What I’ve done here is no different from other people,” he told We-Ha.com in a recent interivew. “I had a great career. This is a great town to work for.”
Hill grew up in Bloomfield. His father had been a captain with the Hartford Fire Department, but retired in 1994 after more than 25 years of service.
When Hill first applied to join the West Hartford Fire Department he was 34 and had already had a career, actually several of them. He graduated from the University of Georgia where he started off majoring in computer science but earned his degree in economics. He was an entrepreneur who owned a hat business, managed a local Friendly’s, and had been working at Filene’s at Westfarms, but was looking to do something different. As a Black man, however, he didn’t see West Hartford as all that welcoming.
Hill said one day his father had stopped at Station No. 4 on Albany Avenue – actually to use the restroom – and after chatting with Capt. Kenneth Roback there he brought home a job application for his son. The hiring process was very competitive and when Greg Hill was hired by the West Hartford Fire Department in 1998, there were 1,200 applicants for 30 positions.
He was in the 13th class to graduate from the Connecticut Fire Academy. When he received his first assignment, he reported to Capt. Roback – the one who had given his father the application. “I learned a lot from that guy,” Hill recalled.
When he first joined the fire department, Hill appreciated the great benefits, and good pay. “At first I was just happy to collect a check.”
But once he decided to commit himself to a career in the fire service he wanted to participate in ever possible opportunity and really become part of the community. He was a member of the honor guard when it was created in 2001. Their first detail was participating in a parade marking 9-11.
For 10 years Hill administered the department’s public education program. That was a great opportunity to be a role model, he said, to talk to kids about career opportunities. He also received an award for revamping the education program.
Hill liked working on the front lines. He didn’t want to be an apparatus operator because he thought it would take him too far out of the action. He operated the hose and was the “nozzle guy.” Repetition is the best form of training, Hill said.
“What really resonated with me is Greg has taken a lot of people out of fires,” Priest said. He received some commendations, but at the time information like that was rarely shared with the public.
Hill was firefighter of the year in 2007.
When Hill first took the test to become a lieutenant, he failed. That was in 2005, and he said he didn’t take it seriously enough. It was quite a few years – nearly a decade – before Hill took another lieutenant test, and in late April of 2014 he was promoted.
“The second one he took, he knew he crushed it,” O’Callaghan said. He knew then that he was ready.
“My father urged me to create a path for other minorities, to not just be a shirt-wearer,” Hill said. As he rose through the ranks he took that advice to heart, and mentored others, helping them to advance. “My job was always if someone wanted to advance, my job was to facilitate that.”
He took pride in not just being a supervisor. “There are supervisors and there are leaders. Leaders lead [people] to be better,” Hill said. “That’s what I took pride in.”
Administration was 50% of the job of being a lieutenant, Hill said. It requires strong technical skills as well as strong people management skills. “You can’t just wing it,” he said.
Hill said he was helping two guys on his crew study to become lieutenants. He had personally planned to retire in 2018 after a 20-year career, but the people he was mentoring ended up helping him prepare for the captain’s exam.
“I had started thinking about when I would retire in 2014,” Hill said. His daughter was going to be graduating from high school in 2017 and wanted to go to college in the south.
But he took the test and did really well. His other guys did, too. In August 2019, Hill became a captain and the others were promoted as well.
“I said that two years from then I would retire,” he said.
Hill was not a paramedic, and said that was not something he wanted to do, but he praised the addition in 2016 of the paramedic role to the department’s responsibilities.
“Oh man, you can’t put a price tag on that,” Hill said. He said he had long been a proponent for the efficiencies bringing the paramedic service under the department would bring. It used to take as long as long as 10 minutes for a paramedic to arrive on the scene, but now that service is available in four minutes or less.
Not that department members couldn’t save lives, he said. When AEDs first started being used in town, in the late 1990s, he said he recalled using one on a woman who was unconscious. “We shocked her three times. She came back and was talking to us,” he said.
“The job is about a lot more than what you see on TV,” Hill said. “We have a job to do. Sometimes we might do some heroic stuff, but that’s just us doing our jobs.”
When he first became an officer, Hill said he didn’t really consider that he was the first officer of color, but he did know that he had to prove himself. “There’s never been discrimination against me, but there was for guys that came before me,” he said of how he was treated by other members of the department. Early in his career, however, the public was not always as welcoming when he arrived at their homes on a call.
“In the late 90s and early 2000s some people still told me to go around back,” he said. “The people who came before me faced that in the station, people not wanting to eat together, or stay in the bunkroom.”
Hill didn’t even have to use the fingers on both hands to count the number of people of color who have been part of the West Hartford Fire Department. Most retired after 20-year careers. Patrick Brooks, who was the first Black man hired as a firefighter in West Hartford, sadly died while on the job in 2002.
When he was a captain, Hill said, he and Marsha McCurdy Adell, who is now the deputy fire marshal, were the only Blacks in the department.
The department is very young now, Hill said. Some of the most senior officers are young enough to be his kids.
In December Hill met with Roszena Haskins, who was promoted last summer to West Hartford’s executive director of Diversity Advancement, to share his thoughts and provide some insight into his experience.
He said it’s important for the town to hire more minorities in the fire department, and he’s willing to assist with those efforts. “The most important thing for me would be to show me the career path. In West Hartford, it’s a great job.”
Hill hopes to be able to help open doors. “That was why I needed to come here,” he said. “There needs to be more of an effort to reduce some of the barriers and make [the fire service] more accessible to people of color.”
While he was and continues to be a strong proponent of the paramedic program, Hill said that needing to be a paramedic to be hired presents a barrier due to the cost of the extra education.
Exposure to the job can be another major barrier. Many firefighters start off as volunteers in smaller, more rural departments. “But a lot of minorities don’t have that opportunity,” he said. “A lot of people get the wealth of their training that way. I had no experience at all, but when they hired me they were sending classes to the academy,” he said, which is something the department does currently for newly-hired paramedics.
He said having a cadet program in West Hartford would also help expose young people to the career.
“We need to find a way to make the recruitment a little more inclusive,” Hill said.
That comment doesn’t just apply to the fire service, Hill said. His sister, who worked as a long-term substitute teacher in West Hartford, ended up taking a permanent position in Manchester because the demographic includes more people of color, he said.
Although he now lives in Rhode Island, Hill remains committed to supporting West Hartford. “I’m willing to come in any time and talk about career paths,” he said.
His message to teens about the fire service: “It’s a great career path. Education is paramount, and it’s definitely mandatory to finish high school.” College is a necessity for most employment opportunities, he said. Also important is “being persistent in pursuing your dream.”
Hill got remarried three years ago. His wife – also a trailblazer – was a detective for the Providence (Rhode Island) Police Department and was the first female of color to be promoted in the department. Between them they have four daughters, ages 17 through 24. The oldest is a student at UConn Law School and will be doing a clerkship with the only female Black Superior Court judge in Rhode Island. One daughter attends Central Connecticut State University and another is at UConn, while the youngest is a senior in high school.
What Hill said is needed is for the West Hartford Fire Department to become more diverse, and he said overall there need to be more diverse opportunities in town for people of color. “The makeup needs to change with the demographics. They need to see like faces.”
In the past the fire department had a tumultuous relationship with town leadership, Hill said, but that’s no longer the case.
Hill had plenty of praise for the current fire department administration, and said they really know how to lead. Pointing to Priest and O’Callaghan, he said, “[They] really listen to what people say. They understand that it takes a whole team.”
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