Deaf Conn. Man Makes Firefighting Dream a Reality

June 18, 2012
Joseph Ronan will soon volunteer at the North End Hose Co. 3 after completing Firefighter 1 training.

WEST HAVEN, Conn. -- As flames leapt around him and smoke billowed in the air, Joseph Ronan tugged at a fire hose, attempting to drag it out of the burning building and follow two firefighters in front of him. It wouldn't budge.

Realizing the hose was stuck on something around the corner, Ronan could feel himself getting nervous and dizzy. He knew the hose would go flying if he let go.

The moment was scary for all the obvious reasons, but there was more behind the fear Ronan felt before he exited the building: He's deaf and can't speak.

The 21-year-old city resident was participating in a practice exercise as part of the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School's firefighter 1 training program. Ronan graduated from the program earlier this month and will soon volunteer at the North End Hose Co. 3 firehouse on Spring Street, defying stereotypes and breaking down barriers, one blaze at a time.

He might not be able to hear your cries for help, but he's ready to come to your rescue.

"I like to help the community and prove the deaf community can do anything," he said Thursday afternoon, signing with his hands as his mother, Debra Ronan, and friend, Ashley Melendez, interpreted.

"I want to tell the deaf community if you want your dream job to come true, it can."

Deaf or hard-of-hearing firefighters are rare in Connecticut, Ronan and his mother said.

Ronan has been deaf since birth, but family members and doctors didn't realize it until he was about 8 months old, when he wasn't reacting to sounds on TV, clapping hands or passing parades. He was soon diagnosed with Waardenburg syndrome, which is genetic.

He attended Savin Rock Community School and an ACES school, but then went to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. Continued...

His love for firefighting was evident from childhood.

"I can remember when Joey was about four or five years old, he would watch "Rescue 911" on TV, and we would watch that show every night before he went to sleep," his mother said.

He enrolled at Gateway Community College for about six months after graduating from the American School for the Deaf at 19, but couldn't decide between political science, robotics and engineering.

He started attending monthly meetings at the Spring Street station with interpreters from the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, learning what the crew did and how to become a volunteer firefighter.

Around January, he began taking classes at the fire school, which holds sessions at different locations since it's between permanent homes at the moment. Interpreters helped out.

"They taught about ropes, ladders, venting the roof, search and rescue, the hose and hazmat," Ronan signed.

He also trained at concrete buildings filled with hay, going into fires set at the buildings and helping to put them out.

"I went to watch him one day and I was like, 'Oh Lord.' I was thinking he's crazy," his mother said with a laugh.

"I was very proud to watch him. He was really focused, and I was really happy to see how the class kind of all came around him to help him learn how to work inside of a fire. I was really proud to watch him doing such a, to me, scary thing."

Inside the fires, other students in the class gave Ronan signals about what to do, tapping his left or right leg depending on what direction he should turn, or tapping the ladder to tell him to pick it up. Continued...

And now fire personnel at the Spring Street station will be given a similar challenge: Ronan wants to teach members sign language. He will be working under Chief James O'Brien, who is in charge of the Center District.

"The whole class bonded around Joe, and it sounds like Joey earned their respect early on. He's a young man now, and this is something he wanted to do on his own, and he did do it on his own," O'Brien said.

O'Brien and Ronan will soon have a meeting about what tasks Ronan is allowed to undertake. Though he received a certificate of completion from the fire class, the state won't certify him to be a firefighter, which would allow him to be a paid crew member, because of his communication challenges.

He can be a volunteer firefighter and help with exterior work.

"I can help at brush and tree fires, grass fires, hazmat, car crashes, do first aid. Sometimes on the house fire, maybe they need more people to work outside, and do safety set up, or do the hose outside. Hook up the hydrant. Change air packs," Ronan signed.

He said he knows of a few other deaf or hard-of-hearing firefighters in the state. A deaf firefighter has volunteered in Simsbury, and there are hard-of-hearing firefighters in Middletown and Wallingford that he knows of.

He said he's grateful to his teachers and classmates for the opportunity to help him be a firefighter. His father, Sean Ronan, called his graduation a "major accomplishment," adding that while 30 people signed up for the class, only 21 graduated.

Jamie Vincent, deputy fire marshal in Orange and a director of the fire school, said this was the first time a deaf person has been in the class.

"The instructors and students alike all said it doesn't make a difference if you're deaf or blind: You can't see or hear anything inside a burning building anyway, so it basically made everyone level," Vincent said.

Copyright 2012 - New Haven Register, Conn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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