Occhialini leaving Montville for state gig
Montville — It was a windstorm earlier this year — or a nor'easter, or both — and most of the town was blacked out.
Just when dispatcher Jon Leonard and another team member were inundated with calls, Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Director Ray Occhialini closed the laptop where he was updating the Montville EM Facebook page, and started acknowledging fire units.
"Ray dropped everything and came to help," Leonard said. "He's always been a guy who's gone above and beyond and devoted a lot of his own time. Hopefully we find someone half as good as him."
Starting Friday, Occhialini will no longer be at the town's beck and call during storms, fires and catastrophes large and small. After 31 years working for the town, he offered a host of practical and emotional reasons for taking a fire and life safety specialist position at the State Fire Marshal's Office.
"At this point with the lack of volunteers and the need for more dispatchers, I feel like I'm walking into a wall," said Occhialini, who won't miss grappling with state and local budget cuts. "I want to leave on a high instead of in the police logs. Budget times are tough, but public safety should come first. You can have ten shiny fire trucks, but you need people to drive them."
Plus, Occhialini, 55, wanted his weekends back.
"It's 35 hours a week and I have my weekends back for the rest of my life," he said of the new gig, where he'll focus on fire code inspections and state building plan reviews. "I will spend weekends with my family, walking my dog and hanging out at our pool. Maybe take a few short trips. I will find something fun to do."
Not that his three decades in Montville haven't been fun — he says he loves the job and especially the team of public safety crews, dispatchers and town staff around him.
"I can't imagine anyone else putting so much of their heart and soul into their job," said Lisa Scovish, Occhialini's secretary for 18 years, whom Occhialini calls "the boss."
One of the town's first four paid firefighters, Occhialini was hired in 1987 after almost a decade of volunteering with the Montville Fire Co. that began when he was 16.
He graduated from Montville High School in 1980 — a time, he said with a smile, when volunteers would "ride in the back of the fire trucks with hip boots, duck coats and plastic helmets. It used to be cool — you can't do that now. OSHA would be here and it would cost you a big fine — safety reasons, you know."
Occhialini said when he first started, EMT training was "like 80 hours and a hundred bucks, but today it's like $1,200 and I don't know, hundreds of hours. It seems like all the regulations, most of them are reactive to death and problems instead of being proactive, and they've made it so difficult for people to volunteer."
Occhialini climbed the ranks and became fire marshal in 1994.
As the joint fire marshal and emergency management director, Occhialini supervises 10 paid firefighters, manages the 911 center and dispatchers, and has helped revamp and streamline code enforcement and emergency communications.
"We went from nothing, to paper, to electronic, and now we're really going paperless as we're scanning all the paperwork coming through," Occhialini said.
Occhialini takes pride in helping to computerize and integrate fire and police records. He also touted a 2010 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that allowed the town to build a better high band radio system for school buses and town vehicles.
He still has projects lined up for completion on his way out: two defibrillators are set to be installed at Camp Oakdale, accessible with a code from 911 operators after anyone calls to help someone suffering a cardiac arrest.
Scovish and others described Occhialini as nearly irreplaceable.
"I've known him since he was a baby in the sixties," said Ed Bragdon, former Montville Fire Co. chief and now a long-time dispatcher under Occhialini. "He worked for me. Now I work for him. He's a real nice guy and a very dedicated worker."
Town officials earlier this month said they will soon be seeking candidates to replace Occhialini.
"Ray's difficult to replace and brings a lot of knowledge with him to the state," said Wills Pike, Town Council deputy chairman. "He's been very instrumental and active promoting dispatch and fire communications. We appreciate Ray's service to the town."
Occhialini said he thought about moving on a couple years ago, but he was going through a hip replacement the last time the State Fire Marshal's Office had openings.
"It came up again and I said, 'I'm going for it,'" he said. "No regrets, I've worked with a lot of good people who have the town close to their hearts. But you know when it's time to move on."
Occhialini will commute to Hartford from town, where he lives with his wife of almost 33 years, Michele, a long-time IT manager at Mohegan Sun. His daughter, Allison, is a crisis counselor and victims' advocate at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center of Eastern Connecticut, and his son, Anthony, teaches physical education at Mohegan Elementary School.
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