By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – Leigh H. Shapiro was already a path-breaker in his long career as a Hartford firefighter when he was promoted to the second-highest rank in the department over the summer. The West Hartford resident was the first Jewish firefighter promoted to the city’s deputy fire chief in March 2011. The following April, he was selected (through attrition), to tour commander, one of four senior deputy chiefs responsible for managing the citywide on-duty schedules.
In July, Shapiro was selected as Hartford’s first-ever Jewish interim assistant fire chief, when Chief Edward Casares, Jr. retired, and Assistant Fire Chief Carlos M. Huertas became acting fire chief. In July, Huertas posted a department-wide request inviting deputy chiefs to apply for the position of interim assistant fire chief. Shapiro was among three applicants, and was selected for the job as of July 31.
Shapiro is now the first-ever Jewish firefighter to serve as interim assistant fire chief, the second-in-command of the entire fire department. In addition to managing the administration of the department, Shapiro is also deputy director of emergency management for Hartford.
A 25-year veteran firefighter, Shapiro earned an associate’s degree in fire science, then went on to Charter Oak State College to complete a BA in public safety administration. Two years later, in 2009, he earned a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University.
Shapiro says that his religion has never gotten in the way of his profession. Not that he hasn’t heard his share of comments. “Anywhere you go, you’ll have somebody with a big mouth or who thinks they’re funny,” he told the Ledger in March 2011. “Maybe early on in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, there were some older guys who had an attitude problem, but more recently, not: everybody knows I’m Jewish. Some people say that a Jewish guy would be a doctor or a lawyer, so I ask them, ‘Who puts the fires out in Israel?’ and they laugh. But there are still things people may think about Jewish firefighters on the job – but that’s because they’re not familiar with the religion.”
Shapiro has seen the department grow more heterogeneous over his tenure, with a focus on diversity training and sensitivity to others’ backgrounds. His brother, Scott, and son, Ashley, are also firefighters in the department.
It wasn’t an easy decision to apply for the assistant position, Shapiro says. “I struggled with placing my name in the pool for consideration in that I was completely satisfied and happy with my current capacity as tour commander, a position I aspired to through education, training and experience,” he says. “I had no other ambition to be an administrator or department chief. However, the new interim chief needed help quickly. After fighting off City Hall with their political agenda to select whom they wanted as interim assistant, the chief made a bold decision to select me, knowing it was easily defendable and I was, in his words, ‘the right man for the job.’ I took the temporary job because, as much as I did not want it, nor did I have any political ambition to run a department or retire and run another department which most senior fire and police officials often do, I believed this simply was an opportunity that I just could not say no to, no matter what the outcome.”
Shapiro says that the atmosphere in the department has changed since the reshuffle. “There is a palpable sense of not only accomplishment but of humility and new-found direction and purpose within the ranks,” he says. “After years of perceived ineffective management, the rank and file now see their own type of leader in charge, at least for the interim. After years of complaining, seeing undesirable decisions thrust upon the rank and file by previous administrations, and living with an imbedded sense of status quo, I believed that this might be a way to create change, and at that I should at least try. Not everyone is afforded the chance to do that.”
When the actual job posting is announced, Shapiro will decide whether to apply to continue in this position. If it doesn’t pan out? “I will simply return to my original position as tour commander, District 1/Tour A,” Shapiro says.