Deputy Chief – The Department Doormat

William Vincent Miller was the last of a dying breed but he was very far from the first.  From the very beginning, the position of Deputy Chief was in great demand, however, once it was achieved, it was usually abandoned just as quickly.  The West Haven Fire Department expanded to three volunteer companies in 1892.  These were Engine Company #1, The James Graham Hook & Ladder, and West Haven Hook & Ladder.  Firemen, as a rule, expect to be under the command of a Chief Officer.  The second in command was another story altogether.  Now that there was more than just one company, the Assistant Chief or Deputy Chief (they seemed to change them back and forth at will back then) was left to the mercy of his fellow firemen.  Unfortunately the firemen showed little or no mercy when it came to the Deputy Chief.  In 1895 Engine Companies #3 & #4 came into being and things really heated up for the second in command.  Now there were five separate volunteer organizations.  If, for instance, the Deputy Chief was from West Haven Hook & Ladder, the men of Hooks would revere their man in the front office while the men of the other companies would show him little or no respect.  Since he was not a member “of their company” they would have no trouble ignoring him or outright defying him, even on the fire ground. “You’re not my Chief” would be a comment heard quite often in the heat of the moment.  Since all the firemen of the day were volunteers, it left little recourse for any disciplinary action.  In most cases it just lead to the resignation of the Deputy.  All this would finally come to a head in the fall of 1927 – after almost 40 years of conflict.

W. Vincent Miller

We take you now to the year 1919.  Connecticut had just passed (and revised) House Bill 177 and with the new law the Borough of West Haven now installed three new fire commissioners.  One of their first official acts was to remove the current Chief of Department (Arthur Travis) and the current Fire Marshal (Andrew Condon) and replace them with their own choices.  On July 16, 1919 Lloyd Cameron became Chief of Department and W. Vincent Miller was appointed Deputy Chief / Fire Marshal.  And so began the short but colorful career of W. Vincent Miller.  The new law (commonly referred to as “The Firemen’s Act of 1919”) was widely untested and, right out of the gate, Marshal Miller was the object of some controversy.  Although it was agreed to pay him the sum of $100.00 per year, the maximum allowed by the new law, the Marshal submitted an expense report which included office supplies (which were paid) and his cigars (which prompted the board to table the request until further information was obtained).  These were small and even slightly amusing events but the bigger problem arose when the Fire Marshal began charging two dollars for inspections (as outlined by the new law) and assumed that, since he was performing them, the two dollars was his to keep.  In Vincent Millers defense, the law was not very clear in this area and the borough had to use the services of town attorney Charles Roberts to clarify the situation.  In the end, the legal opinion stated that the money collected in the performance of the Fire Marshal’s duties was to be turned over to the district.

The Curse of the Second in Command

West Haven became a town in it’s own right in 1921.  Even though we were officially separate from the Town of Orange and had our own Board of Selectman, the Fire Department was still governed by the Board of Fire Commissioners (as it still is today).  As the years marched on, W. Vincent Miller fell victim to the “Deputy Chief Curse” more and more often. Being a card carrying member of North End Hose Company #3, he had no problems when dealing with the men on Spring Street.  The rest of the companies were another matter all together.  Having his authority questioned or blatantly disregarded by the men was taking its toll.  The situation finally reached the boiling point in October of 1927 when the Marshal brought Fireman A. Stocker before the Board of Commissioners on charges of insubordination.  Stocker, a member of Engine Company #1, openly defied Deputy Chief Miller and “said things that were not very pleasant” when he was confronted as to the use of a can of polish that the Deputy said belonged to the police department.  When ordered to return the polish Stocker refused.  Although the records of the time are brief (and a little more than “politically correct”) one can imagine the heated exchange.

The Chain of Command

On October 4, 1927, Deputy Chief Miller appeared at the regular commissioner’s meeting with Fireman Stocker in tow.  Thinking he would finally get the respect that he deserved, he plead his case to the board.  After hearing about the repeated acts of insubordination the board asked Miller if he had ever reported any of these problems before.  He stated he had not and he was reporting them now.  He was then asked if he had ever reported them to the Chief.  He stated he had not, he was reporting them directly to the commissioners.  The meeting did not go the way Vincent Miller expected.  In the end, the board ruled that the Deputy Chief had exceeded his authority and had not properly reported the charges to the Chief.  Chief Cameron was then instructed to investigate “the supposed problems” and report back to the commissioners at a later meeting.  W. Vincent Miller then withdrew the charges against  Stocker and presented his resignation which was to take effect on October 6,1927.

With Regret

The commissioners decided, at first to table Miller’s resignation until Chief Cameron could complete his investigation and report back to the board.  Then they read the letter more carefully.  In his letter Miller stated that the reason for his resignation was “not being supported by my superior officers”.  Officers plural.  When questioned about who these “officers” might be Vincent Miller replied, “The Board of Fire Commissioners and the Chief of the Department”.  The commissioners apparently took exception to this and, at a special meeting held on October 11, 1927, they voted to accept Vincent Miller’s resignation with regret.  This did not sit well with the Deputy.  He informed the commissioners that, since they had tabled his resignation, he intended to withdraw it.  He was informed that withdrawing his resignation was not an option.  They had already accepted it “with regret”.  Marshal Miller fought valiantly, even going so far as to say he resigned from the West Haven Fire Department but NOT the office of Fire Marshal.  This touched off quite a battle but, when all was said and done, W. Vincent Miller’s career came to an end.

Doormat No Longer

As a result of all this controversy the West Haven Fire Department was prompted to make a bold move.  On December 16,1927, they appointed Charles Leake to the position of Fire Marshal.  They did not, however, make him Deputy Chief.  It was made very clear to Charles Leake that his position would be that of “Fireman / Fire Marshal” and that he would hold no rank.  He would hold this position, with little or no problems, until his retirement in 1940.  A quick historical note:  Charles Leake was one of the first six Grade A Firemen hired on January 24, 1933.  Falling ill in 1940, he became the first man to retire from the West Haven Fire Department.  Two weeks prior to his retirement the Board of Fire Commissioners voted to make him an honorary Assistant Chief of the Fire Department.