Courtesy of Rick Fontana

Rick Fontana grew up three doors down from a West Haven firehouse. 

The son of a firefighter for the town’s Allingtown fire district, Fontana was raised “in awe” of his father’s job and developed a lifelong passion for firefighting and emergency services.

“My dad was running out the door to a fire and my mother would have to be holding me back,” he said.

Fontana’s upbringing, along with his infatuation with the 1970s television medical drama series “Emergency!”, encouraged him to join the civil service straight out of high school. After three decades working as a paramedic and firefighter, Fontana joined New Haven’s emergency management department in 2008 as a deputy director of emergency management, a role that was upgraded to emergency operations director in 2017. Fontana stepped down from the role in January and was sworn into the position of emergency management director in West Haven two weeks ago.

With 16 years of management experience and decades of civil service under his belt, Fontana has witnessed almost every conceivable emergency. As a West Haven firefighter, he participated in Ground Zero rescue operations two days after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. He planned New Haven’s response to pandemics — from the avian flu to smallpox to COVID-19. Once he heard Hurricane Sandy was making headway up the East Coast, he cut short a vacation in Sarasota, Florida to rush back to New Haven and provide support. During Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2018, he helped the city take in almost 1,400 evacuees. That summer, when over 100 people suffered overdoses on the New Haven Green in the span of three days, he oversaw emergency medical efforts. The job, in Fontana’s words, was “24/7, 365.”

“There’s never a normal day,” Fontana said. “Everything takes the backseat when there’s something serious going on, and it could be anything from a car into a building, an issue in the port. It could be a storm-related issue. It could be a structure fire, where you’re running around, sometimes you’re multi-coordinating different things.”

Fontana was certified as a paramedic in 1980, part of the third class of certified paramedics in Connecticut. He worked as a firefighter for Sikorsky Aircraft until 1990, then for the West Haven Fire Department until 2008. Along the way, he completed an undergraduate Fire Science Administration degree and a master’s degree in National Security and Public Safety from the University of New Haven, or UNH, where he is now an adjunct faculty member.

Created in the wake of 9/11, UNH’s national security program was the first of its kind in the country, Fontana said. After graduating from the program with his master’s degree in 2004, he was “propelled” into emergency management and civil defense on the state and local level, working his way up the ladder to New Haven.

“I always had a passion for emergency management, and it’s almost a natural progression when you’re in fire,” Fontana said. 

In Connecticut, where each municipality is required to appoint an emergency management director, the pipeline from the fire department to emergency operations thrives. Many towns, including East Haven, Hartford, Milford, Fairfield and Hamden employ their fire chiefs as emergency management directors, a practice that Fontana opposes. In a devastating fire-related situation, for instance, a fire chief would be engaged with the fire, instead of paying attention to all aspects of the emergency, like relocating and caring for people, Fontana pointed out.

Fontana was appointed as New Haven’s deputy director of emergency management in 2008. In 2017, he intended to leave his job in New Haven to become West Haven’s fire chief. When then-New Haven Mayor Toni Harp offered him a promotion, which included a pay raise, an assistant and the official title of emergency management director, Fontana decided to stay.

“It was the right decision,” he said. “I’m passionate about what I do in my work and, you know, some of the best relationships I’ve had in my life were made in New Haven.”

New Haven’s emergency operations center — or EOC — where Fontana holds court, is located one floor under a municipal building at 200 Orange St. Built in 1981, the emergency management department’s basement headquarters were the last nuclear emergency operations center built in the country, according to Fontana. 

Thick Cold War-era concrete walls encase the EOC’s four rows of five computers each with overhead labels assigning the swivel chairs to various city officials. The mayor and his chief of staff sit in the front row, Fontana said, with easy access to fire and police department officials right behind them. Also in the front row, in the left-hand corner, is a seat ambiguously labeled “Board of Alders,” for the legislative body’s representative to the emergency management department — currently Morris Cove Alder Sal DeCola.

DeCola told the News that he began going to meetings at the EOC 12 years ago, when the Board’s designated chair was consigned to the back row.

“Rick and I have worked together for 12 years,” DeCola said. “We worked out quite well together. He did his job, he made a lot of improvements from where he started there with the equipment and everything else and it’s going to be tough to replace him.” 

DeCola last worked with Fontana in October, when he attended the EOC’s pre-winter storm preparation meeting, which Fontana held annually, along with a pre-hurricane preparation meeting in the summer, he said.

Fontana still works in New Haven, consulting and helping out Chief Administrative Officer Regina Rush-Kittle, whose office oversees the Emergency Management department and who currently serves as the city’s director of emergency management.

Rush-Kittle, who assumed her current position in 2022, confirmed that Fontana has been helping out the office as a consultant since he formally stepped down. She told the News that she does not know how long he will be helping, and that she is also not sure when a replacement will be named.

Fontana called his experience in New Haven an “honor,” and emphasized the strength of his team.

“I tell people all the time when I’m responding to a fire at three o’clock in the morning, and people are out of their homes it’s the worst day that they may have ever had in their life,” he said. “Helping them, it’s pretty cool. It’s a good feeling, but I don’t do it myself.”

However, working in emergency services also comes with devastating loss.

Fontana recalled going to the hospital with New Haven Fire Chief John Alston in May 2021, when firefighter Ricardo Torres Jr. died in a fire. For Fontana, there is no worse day than being in the hospital for a firefighter.

“I coached [Torres Jr.] when he was a young hockey player,” Fontana said. “I knew his mom, his grandma and grandpa. Tough day. Those days, you say to  yourself, ‘why the hell am I in this?’”

On Feb. 8, Fontana was sworn in as West Haven’s emergency management director, a position to which he was appointed by Mayor Dorinda Borer, who he has known for over 20 years. Borer was elected in 2023.

Fontana said that he thinks the mayor appointed him to take the department to a “different level.”

“With my experience in New Haven, and with my experiences being a retired firefighter in West Haven, I know every corner of the city, there’s not a street name that I don’t know in West Haven,” he said.

The position is not entirely new for Fontana. After 9/11 he was appointed to be West Haven’s director of homeland security, a position that later merged with the same emergency management director position he assumed two weeks ago.

Fontana said that he believes his new job will be “a little bit easier,” given that West Haven’s emergency departments receive far fewer calls than New Haven’s, and that they cover a smaller population in a smaller area. He said that his first step as director is to draft an emergency operation plan for the city. Although his position is part-time, leaving him more time to spend in Sarasota, he has lofty aspirations for what comes next.

“My goal is to get the emergency operation center redone,” he said. “I can expand it if I need to but I want it to be comfortable, people are going to spend time there. I want it to look like this.”

Fontana gestured around his bunker-like New Haven office, where maps and whiteboards displaying snow removal routes from a winter storm two weeks ago still flanked the walls.

“Give me a year and a half,” he said.

West Haven is located at 355 Main St. in West Haven.

Ariela Lopez covers City Hall and City Politics. Originally from New York City, she is a first-year in Branford College.