Person of the Week
Many Milestones with Co. 9 for Newly-Retired Captain Mike Mullen
Mike Mullen rose through the ranks of Indian Neck/Pine Orchard Volunteer Fire Co. 9 over the decades, first serving as an officer in the rescue squad, and then, at age 22, as lieutenant of Co. 9. In 1986, he was elected Co. 9 captain, the same post once held by his dad, former Branford Fire Chief Peter Mullen. Mike Mullen served as Co. 9 captain until January, 2021, when he officially retired. (Photo by Sandy Hawthorne )
Captain Mike Mullen and company gathered for this photo outside of the former firehouse in May 2018. The building was knocked down and replaced with a new structure which officially opened for use in January 2020. (Photo by Sandy Hawthorne )
Mike Mullen was 16 years old when he joined up with Indian Neck Volunteer Fire Co. 9 in 1974, and for a pretty good reason: His dad, the late Peter Mullen, captained Co. 9 at the time (and went on to serve as Branford’s fire chief, for many years, in the years the followed).
Mike rose through the ranks of Co. 9 over the decades, first serving as an officer in the rescue squad, and then, at age 22, as lieutenant of Co. 9. In 1986, Mike was elected Co. 9 captain, and continued to serve at the post until January 2021, when he officially retired.
If you’re counting, that’s 47 years of volunteer firefighting service with the same company.
“I stepped down because it’s not an old guy’s game. It’s a young guy’s job,” Mike says with a laugh.
Volunteer firefighters undergo the same rigorous training as career firefighters to meet the standards required for firefighting.
“For us to be what we call Class A, we have the same standards. Class A would be the guy that goes in and puts out the fire, and we’re qualified to do that,” says Mike, who also served, for many years, as a trainer for Co. 9 volunteers.
Mike says Co. 9’s membership numbers have gone up and down through the years. Years ago, the company was consolidated with the former Pine Orchard program to become Indian Neck/Pine Orchard Volunteer Fire Co. 9.
“When I started out, it was at about the same size that it is now, then it shrunk for a while. Now, we’re fighting for volunteers again,” says Mike.
No experience is needed and volunteers receive free training for Connecticut state fire and EMS certification. Volunteer firefighters receive a stipend and also pitch in to help the company out with projects and fundraisers.
“The fundraisers are important,” says Mike, adding Co. 9 is gearing up to send out its annual mail appeal this spring. “Basically, if we want some equipment and the town says ‘No’ or ‘We don’t have the money in the budget,’ we can get permission from the town and go out and purchase it ourselves.”
Mike also plans to continue assisting Co. 9 with training. He says “sharing the knowledge” is hands down one of the most significant rewards he’s received from his volunteer work.
“I like training guys and sharing the knowledge, and seeing guys who I’ve trained come up through the ranks and getting positions, like Shaun Heffernan—he started down there with me,” says Mike.
Heffernan, who first signed up with Co. 9 at age 17, went on to become Branford Fire Department’s assistant chief/fire marshal. He retired in September 2020, following 32 years tied to the town’s fire service.
Without a doubt, Mike counts the replacement of the former Co. 9 firehouse at 6 Linden Avenue with the newly constructed firehouse, where Co. 9 officially cut the ribbon in January 2020, as the biggest milestone along his long volunteer firefighting career path.
“That took 20 years,” says Mike. “I never gave up the fight. I just kept selling it to the higher ups, and I finally got somebody up in Town Hall to listen to me.”
Mike worked with Branford Fire Chief Tom Mahoney on the project and was a member of the building committee, which worked to ensure that the new facility would fit in to the character of the neighborhood and enhance the area for neighbors, he says.
“It wasn’t going to be a Butler building,” says Mike of the well-known name in metal-framed warehouse structures. “We wanted it to look like it belongs in the neighborhood.”
In December 2019, Mike and Co. 9 moved back home after being relocated for just over nine months during construction. The $1.675 million Co. 9 firehouse project, which received a $500,000 Small Town Economic Assistance (STEAP) grant, replaced a badly aging two-story firehouse and single garage bay constructed from a converted 1911 home. The new two-story, two-bay building, designed by Silver Petrucelli+ Associates, Inc., includes just under 5,000 square feet of operating space and complies with federal standards for storm resiliency.
One of the issues with the old firehouse was the lack of room for volunteers and equipment, including Engine 9, the company’s fire truck.
“It was okay when I joined, because the [former] truck fit,” says Mike of the old firehouse garage bay. “I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of the current truck in the old firehouse, but we had like a couple of feet on each side, and in the back, we had two or three inches, and in the front, we had enough for the guys’ knees to fit between the front door and the front bumper.”
One of the milestones Mike wasn’t expecting was to experience firefighting in a global pandemic. Mike oversaw training Co. 9 to turn out with personal protective equipment (PPE) and all of the other requirements needed to safely respond to an emergency.
“They sent out emails, and we did online training on PPE because they wanted to limit contact,” says Mike. “They’re still limiting contact. All our training is online—they don’t want us hanging out at the firehouse because of exposure.”
In addition to continuing to assist Co. 9 with training, “I’ll still go to calls,” says Mike, who continues to be a member of Co. 9. “I’ll take over the pump, and the younger guy can go in. I’m just going to be wearing a black helmet, instead of a red one.”
He says he’s very confident in Co. 9’s newly elected slate of officers, including Captain Chris Gagliardi.
“He and I talk all the time,” says Mike.
If you’re looking for Mike, there’s another place to find him in Indian Neck, bartending at Lenny’s Indian Head Inn, a legendary local restaurant that’s just a few doors away from the firehouse.
“I think I started at Lenny’s in ‘86. It’s only been 10 years full time, though,” says Mike, who’s also known as “Mooner” to many of his friends and customers.
Mike’s a Branford High School Class of 1977 alumnus and has been married to his wife, Barbara, for 37 years. They live in the house in Indian Neck where Mike grew up while his dad was engaged in his career as a Branford firefighter.
“That was kind of neat, seeing him move up through the ranks. I was proud of him, that he could do it all,” says Mike.