SOUTHINGTON — Fire department leaders have chosen Eric Heath, assistant fire chief, to fill the department’s top spot.
Heath served as interim chief for most of 2017 as the department searched for a chief. He was promoted from battalion chief to assistant fire chief and assistant fire marshal last year. Both chief and assistant chief roles also include fire marshal and assistant fire marshal duties.
The Board of Fire Commissioners voted to appoint Heath during a meeting last week, promoting him from interim chief to the full-time role.
“We’re confident in Eric. He’s a quality guy,” said Mark Lajoie, fire board chairman and a Republican. “He served under (former) Chief (James) Paul, he works well with the commission. He’s got the same mindset, he’s big on training and working with volunteers and the career firefighters.”
Southington has both career and volunteer firefighters. Relations between the two groups were strained during the lead-up to former chief’s Harold “Buddy” Clark’s retirement in 2017 and department leaders wanted his replacement to work on alleviating those tensions.
Christine Shanley-Buck, a fire board Democrat, said she saw no need for an expensive and time-consuming national search for a new fire chief.
“Why go outside when you’ve got the talent sitting right in front of you and you know what you’re going to get and the guys all respect him?” she said. “It seemed to make all the sense in the world to go with what we have right in front of us.”
Shanley-Buck said commission members got to see Heath in action during his time as interim chief. That’s given her a lot of comfort in picking him.
“I think Eric Heath is well respected by his fellow firefighters,” she said.
Heath’s job description and pay, $140,000 annually, will remain the same as his predecessor’s, according to Lajoie.
Another benefit of hiring from within is that it provides promotion opportunities for other firefighters. Heath’s position as assistant chief will have to be filled, Shanley-Buck said, and if the position is filled internally they’ll be other positions that open up as well.
She’s been consistently impressed with local firefighters during promotion interviews.
“These guys are so impressive. They’re articulate, they’re well prepared,” Shanley-Buck said.
James Paul was promoted to chief in March 2021. He succeeded Richard Butler, a Maryland fire chief chosen after a nation-wide search, who led the department from 2018 to 2020. Fire board leaders repeatedly requested and finally got $25,000 from the Town Council for the candidate search that resulted in Butler’s hire.
Heath couldn’t be reached for comment.