Dennis R. Cassia, 71, of Monroe, has been a high school teacher, a pilot, a jumpmaster teaching skydiving, and a member of the Fairfield County HazMat team. Soon he will add another significant milestone: a Hall of Fame firefighter.
Cassia first became a firefighter in 1975 when he joined the volunteer fire company in Pleasantville, N.Y. The former high school science teacher went on to embark on a 48-year-career as a firefighter.
The retired Stratford firefighter and longtime member of the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department in town will be inducted into the Connecticut State Firefighters Association Hall of Fame with 10 other honorees during a dinner at the Aqua Turf in Southington on April 6.
“It’s just an honor to be associated with the people who are in there already,” Cassia said of those who came before him.
“He is such a wealth of knowledge,” Monroe Fire Marshal William “Bill” Davin said of Cassia.
Of the Hall of Fame induction, Davin said, “it’s well deserved with the teaching he did throughout the state and his career. He’s still teaching the young firefighters of today. He’s heavily involved in instructor classes.”
According to the CSFA, Hall of Fame inductees went “above and beyond normal expectations over an extended period of time” … demonstrated leadership” and “shown themselves to be a motivating force for the betterment of the fire service throughout Connecticut and the United States.”
They “contributed in a positive way to the enrichment of the fire service organizations they represented” and their efforts “benefited and improved the fire service of the State.” Nominations include positions, deeds, accomplishments, awards of distinction and length of service.
While growing up in New York State, Cassia said the TV show “Emergency!” sparked his interest in firefighting.
“Obviously, the excitement,” he said of what attracted him to become a firefighter. Cassia also liked how firefighters stood on the back step of a fire engine as it responded to a scene — something the Occupational Safety and Health Administration no longer allows.
Cassia was teaching biology, chemistry and earth science at Rye Neck High School in Mamaroneck when he saw an opportunity to join the fire department in his hometown of Pleasantville.
During an interview in the living room of his Monroe home one recent Saturday morning, Cassia recalled the first structure fire he responded to.
Early one morning in the 1970s, Cassia slept when a loud horn and sirens sounded throughout the village, stirring him at 4 a.m. Adrenaline shot through the volunteer firefighter’s body as he got out of bed and quickly put on clothes he had left out for just such an emergency.
Today, firefighters hear emergency calls on scanners and receive alerts on their cellphones, but in the 1970s, fire alarm call boxes were set up around communities, so people could call in fires. The number of times the horn went off signaled which numbered fire alarm call box was closest to the fire.
Cassia was soon in his car, driving along the dark, desolate streets of the sleepy village.
Moments later he arrived at the Pleasantville firehouse, where he and other volunteers were briefed on the residential structure fire, pulled on their protective gear and climbed aboard the trucks.
Cassia stood on the back step of a 1959 LaFrance fire truck and held on tight as it climbed a steep hill with its siren blasting.
“The guy was shifting,” he said of the driver. “There were no automatics in those days, so we held on, because when he shifted it would jerk. We saw the glow of the fire before we got there.”
The house was engulfed in flames, but the family was safely outside when the unit arrived.
“I remember getting there in the truck and a guy saying, ‘grab the hose,'” Cassia said. “This was my first alarm, so I was a non-interior firefighter.”
He held a hose, while attacking the flames with a steady stream of water as a firefighter behind him steadied the line and pushed him forward as the exterior fire was being extinguished.
“I do remember the sun coming up, so we were there for a while,” Cassia said.
No looking back
Cassia volunteered for the Pleasantville Volunteer Fire Department for nine years. At the time, a fire department was split into four separate companies: ladder, engine, rescue and Hays Hose.
“I was a driver in the Engine Co. and I wanted to learn to drive the ladder truck,” Cassia said, recalling how he was the first in his department to learn to drive apparatus for two different companies.
“I always had a curiosity to learn more things ,” he said. “I love firefighting, so I wanted to know as much as I could.”
When the Pleasantville department started cross-training among its companies, Cassia’s teaching background made him the logical choice to become their first training officer.
Cassia was still a teacher, but said he always wanted to be a full-time firefighter. In 1985 a paid position opened up in Stratford, Connecticut.
“My boss gave me a year’s leave of absence and if it didn’t work out, my boss said he would hold my job for a year,” Cassia recalled, “and of course I never looked back.”
He went on to serve as a Stratford firefighter for 25 years, before retiring as a battalion chief in 2009.
Cold water rescue
During his career in Stratford, Cassia earned a citation for his actions responding to an emergency call in December of 1992, when Storm Beth ravaged the Northeast.
He and Brian Lampart wore cold water rescue suits in Lordship, while checking on home occupants when they heard a call over police radio that a woman was stuck in the raging water and drowning on Main Street, near Sikorsky Airport.
“Brian and I were rushed to the scene by Stratford EMS,” Cassia said. “Upon arrival, we found a woman holding onto the top of a 12-foot-fence. Water from the Housatonic River had flooded Main Street. We entered the water and swam to the victim.”
“Once at the fence, we were able to hold her head above water and support her until the rest of the fire department arrived,” he said. “The ladder truck extended the ladder and using a rope we were able to lift her from the water and bring her to safety.”
Upon taking the Stratford job, Cassia moved to Monroe and joined the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department. “I joined, because right away you knew you had a core of friends,” he said.
Cassia rose through the ranks of the MVFD, serving as lieutenant, captain, second assistant chief, safety officer and the department’s first ever chief’s aide. He was the Monroe training officer for 10 years.
Among the many awards and citations he earned in Stratford and Monroe, Cassia was an MVFD Firefighter of the Year.
Always a teacher
While serving as a Stratford firefighter, Cassia said he started taking a lot of fire training classes in the late 1980s.
John Viets, an instructor for the Connecticut State Fire School, which has since become the Connecticut Fire Academy, suggested Cassia send his resume for an instructor position because of his teaching background.
Viets, who is now retired, was a Monroe Volunteer firefighter.
“About a week later, I got a call from Wayne Sandford,” Cassia recalled. “He asked me if I could teach that Saturday.”
Sandford told Cassia to go to the Branford Fire Department and meet the instructor, George Conrad.
“What are we teaching,” Cassia asked.
“You’re teaching Instructor 1,” Sandford replied.
“So I was teaching firefighters how to be instructors,” Cassia said. “I never took an instructor class in the state because I was a certified teacher, so I was accepted.”
“He’s just so smooth as a teacher with his prior credentials as a high school teacher,” Davin said. “He could keep your interest. His charisma keeps you interested.”
“My high school biology teacher was my mentor and I emulated him,” Cassia said. “He had a style. When I came to Connecticut to work at that instructor class, George was of the same quality. It’s a combination of enthusiasm and enquiry. Enquiry means that I ask instead of tell.”
Cassia said the teaching style encourages a lively classroom discussion, rather than an instructor talking at students. “If not, you lose them fast,” he said.
Cassia and Robert Massicotte taught a two-week chemistry of hazardous materials course for the National Fire Academy, which enabled Connecticut’s first responders to earn their national certification here.
The National Fire Academy later asked Cassia and Massicotte to update the emergency response program, so the two instructors spent a week rewriting two chapters for the class together, according to Cassia.
Tying the knot
Kim Keegan was a firefighter with the Sound Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Old Greenwich when she took Cassia’s Fire Instruction 1 class.
“He was very knowledgeable. I took a class he taught,” she said. “He said, ‘if you want to be an instructor, you have to pass my class.’ I thought he was kind of full of himself. People kept saying, ‘he likes you.’ I said, ‘whatever.'”
Kim met Cassia again when her fire department participated in a volleyball tournament with members of the Stepney Volunteer Fire Department.
“We ran into Dennis. He was following us around. He invited us to the Monroe firehouse,” Kim recalled. “He said, ‘can I call you?’ I said, ‘yes, I guess.'”
The couple started dating in the early ’90s and are now married. Cassia has two children from a previous marriage and two grandchildren.
Kim joined the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department in 1994 and the Monroe EMS in 2008. She is currently Monroe’s director of Community and Social Services.
Over the years, Kim’s appreciation for her husband’s career as a firefighter and instructor grew.
“I’m the one who nominated him,” Kim said, while seated on a recliner in the Cassias’ living room. “I’m surprised nobody nominated him before this. I wanted it to be a secret.”
“She kept asking me questions about my career and I figured it out,” Cassia said.
A plane crash on I-95
Cassia, who has a love for science, was an adjunct professor for the University of New Haven for the chemistry of hazardous materials. He was also a 25-year-member of the Fairfield County HazMat Team.
Kim said her husband’s vast knowledge has often come in handy.
In December of 1991, a single-engine Piper Comanche, with a lone pilot aboard, crashed on Interstate-95 in Stratford.
“He flew those little planes, so he knew how to shut the fuel off and disconnect the batteries,” Kim said of Cassia, adding that he and his fellow Stratford firefighters also knew to use foam, rather than water, for a plane fire.
Cassia had earned his pilot license in 1970.
“I’m also a jumpmaster,” he said. “I used to teach people to skydive. My dream was to be an Air Force pilot, but my eyesight wasn’t good enough. They said, ‘you can be a navigator.’ I said, ‘no.'”
While responding to an emergency call in Monroe, Kim remembers calling her husband from the scene to ask him about a chemical.
“He didn’t have to look it up. He just told me what it was, the safety requirements and the fire fighting actions we should take,” Kim said, adding with a smile, “people thought I was a genius.”
Throughout his career, Cassia has trained firefighters across the state, and nationally, on all aspects of firefighting. He has also certified officers. A number of firefighters expressed their gratitude over the years, including one who wrote Cassia to tell him he was the reason he was now a fire chief.
Cassia said he enjoys hearing about his former students’ successes in the field.
“You do see the results of your work, not only in the classroom, but I read about fires in other towns and I smile, because I know I had firefighters in my classes,” Cassia said. “You see the outcomes and know you had something to do with it.”
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