Connecticut woman named Seminole fire chief

Heather Burford started out as a volunteer firefighter.

Heather Burford started out as a volunteer firefighter.

SEMINOLE — A fire chief from Connecticut is slated to become the city's next fire chief.

Heather Burford, 47, beat out 28 other candidates for the job because of her enthusiasm, her receptiveness to new ideas, her experience and her education, City Manager Frank Edmunds said. The job opened up in August when Chief George Bessler retired and took a job as training chief with the East Lake Fire Rescue Department.

"Chief Burford, in my opinion, exemplifies the future of the fire service," Edmunds said. "She has solid hands-on experience in the fire service and possesses a greater appreciation of public administration, all of which will better serve our residents."

If Burford passes background, medical and drug screenings, she will begin work in mid January. She will earn $91,000 annually, plus benefits.

Pinellas will have two women leading fire departments once Burford arrives, as neighboring Largo named Shelby Willis its chief last month.

"It was time. Just ready for that next challenge. Ready for a bigger and more complex operation," Burford said of her decision to leave her job as chief of the Ridgefield (Conn.) Fire Department, which she has held for seven years.

Burford said she especially wanted to move to Florida because the state tends to be on the cutting edge and setting trends for the rest of the nation in fire and emergency medical services. That's particularly important, she said, considering the challenges facing the fire service in the upcoming years. Those challenges range from the financial to handling the aging population to potential changes in the way medical services are handled in the United States. Some have suggested, for example, that the paramedics and emergency medical technicians in fire departments could act as a kind of community health service.

"We're the kind of profession that is constantly reinventing ourselves," Burford said. "That's going to continue and we almost need to. … We're really living in a different world now."

Burford said she was unable to comment on what this might mean for the Seminole Fire Rescue Department but said, in general, she believes that the profession as a whole needs to develop a solid set of "professional standards" that is based in increased training, education and certification requirements. Firefighters who want to go into administration should be encouraged and helped along as well, she said.

Burford is a native of Canada, born in Montreal. She grew up in the Burlington area, south of Toronto. Her family moved to Libertyville, Ill., in the early 1980s when she was halfway through high school. She is now a U.S. citizen.

After graduating from Iowa State University with a bachelor's degree in science, she started working in pharmaceutical sales.

"That was just not any fun for me at all," Burford said.

Burford said she'd always daydreamed of being a forest firefighter but had no idea how to go about it. She went to the Wilton, Conn., fire department and asked. Their response: "We don't know anything about forest firefighting but would you like to be a volunteer?" She said yes and fell in love with the profession.

"I really kind of fell into it," Burford said.

She received her paramedic certification in 1993, the same year she started working for the Manchester (Conn.) Fire Rescue EMS Department. She stayed there, rising through the ranks, until taking her current job in 2006.

She completed the executive fire officer program at the USFA National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2005. She received her master's in public administration from the University of Connecticut in 2010.

She is single and has two rescue dogs and a rescue cat.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Connecticut woman named Seminole fire chief 12/03/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 3:06pm]

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