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Shedding past controversy, New London firefighter reaches another milestone

New London — With eight years under his belt at the New London Fire Department and his promotion Friday to the rank of lieutenant, Alfred Mayo said he’d like to think he’s proven his critics wrong and risen above the controversy that marked the start of his career.

“Wow. After all I went through, eight years later and look where I am,” Mayo said in an interview this week. “I was portrayed as this guy with low test scores and an attitude and I think I’ve proven myself more than enough. I am very happy and humbled about where I am today.”

It was a long road for Mayo, who spent the better part of 10 years seeking a career in the fire service. He had finally earned a position in New London when in 2011, Mayo was pulled from the Connecticut Fire Academy days before his graduation and fired by the city of New London. The allegations against him — misconduct and a “bad attitude” at the academy — led to allegations of racial discrimination and an investigation that turned up procedural failures at the academy. Mayo was the only Black recruit in his class at the time. Less than 8% of firefighters nationwide are Black.

“It was a devastating time period for my family and I,” an emotional Mayo said Friday. “To see this play out in the newspapers and on the news. Not only was I emotionally broken but I remember going to Shop Rite and hoping my card wasn’t denied."

After waging a public fight to get his job back, aided by the NAACP, former state Rep. Ernest Hewett and the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, Mayo was reinstated, graduated from the fire academy in 2012 and subsequently was rehired by the city. His plight led to town hall meetings, support statewide from Black firefighters and more scrutiny of the city's hiring practices.

At the time, Mayo was the first Black firefighter hired in the city since 1978.

“It was obviously a rough start. I had a lot to prove to the guys that were there and I’m sure they felt a certain way about me,” Mayo said. “I was always a target from day one. That being said, eight years later I’ve formed a good relationship with many of the guys. Overall the atmosphere has changed at the department.”

“Today I feel honored, empowered, humbled, proud, loved, successful, grateful, a feeling of Black excellence and energized,” he said.

Mayo, a 42-year-old father of three, acknowledged some "rough patches" during his time at the department, including an arrest following a bar fight in 2013 that he argues was prompted by remarks from another man about Mayo using race to keep his job in New London.

Fire Chief Thomas Curcio during the promotion ceremony highlighted Mayo’s accomplishments. In 2015, Mayo was awarded a unit citation for a cold water rescue at the Connecticut College Arboretum. In 2017, he was awarded commendation of merit — the second-highest department award — for participation in a lifesaving effort that put him at extreme risk.

Mayo’s promotion is another milestone for a department that hadn’t seen a Black lieutenant since the promotion of retired former Chief Henry Kydd more than three decades ago.

“There’s still resistance from a handful of dudes,” Mayo admits. “There is systemic racism in the fire and police departments. That’s a fact. But with Chief Curcio, I see a sincerity in him and a better outlook for getting more minorities and New London residents on.”

Mayo, who would like to be part of that recruitment effort, said he also sees a shift in the city with a more progressive City Council that could help push diversity in new hires. Just two Black firefighters have been hired since he started in 2012, he said.

Mayo said there are few Black youth who have firefighters as role models as he did, uncles that included retired New London Battalion Chief Roger Tompkins, Groton City fire Capt. Daniel Tompkins and Groton City fire Chief Robert Tompkins.

“I was fortunate, unlike a lot of Black and minority kids, to have family members in the service. I had some guidance ... a sense that this is something I could do,” Mayo said.

Mayo was a former volunteer firefighter at the Taftville Fire Department in Norwich who fought for 10 years to become a paid professional firefighter.

Mayo’s lieutenant badge was pinned to his lapel by his uncle, Groton City fire Chief Robert Tompkins.

At Friday's ceremony, Curcio announced a new initiative that will bring Emergency Medical Responder and Emergency Medical Technician classes to New London High School, an initiative that will have students riding along on medical calls with New London firefighters and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital paramedics.

Mayo, outside of his duties as a firefighter and hobbies that include model railroading, plans to continue his vocal support for the movement protesting racial injustice.

g.smith@theday.com

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