SEMINOLE – Earlier this month, Seminole Fire Rescue welcomed a new fire chief into its ranks.
Chief Heather Burford, formerly fire chief of the Ridgefield Fire Department in Connecticut, began serving the Seminole area as of Jan. 13.
“I was ready personally for a change and a new career challenge,” she said.
Burford replaces George Bessler, who served as fire chief in Seminole for three years before retiring in August. Bessler currently works as training chief for the East Lake Fire Department.
“[Heather] Burford is an enthusiastic mid-career professional who responded well during our selection process,” City Manager Frank Edmunds wrote in an email to the members of City Council after offering her the job.
Burford has more than 24 years of experience in fire service. She spent the last seven of those years as fire chief in Ridgefield.
The Ridgefield Fire Department delivers fire, advanced life support, technical rescue, prevention and educational services to a community of over 25,000 residents. As chief, Burford oversaw a staff that consisted of both career and volunteer members, including 37 full-time fire/EMS personnel, nine fire/EMS dispatchers and a volunteer contingent of 57 members.
She was drawn to Seminole Fire Rescue because of its larger scope, she said. With 74 full-time employees, SFR provides fire, rescue, emergency medical and educational services to 80,000 residents – and an additional 8,000 tourists and daytime workforce – within 25 square miles.
Born and raised in Canada, Burford spent some time in the Midwest for college, earning a B.S. from Iowa State University in 1988. After a short stint working for a pharmaceutical company in Manhattan, she discovered the fire and rescue field as a volunteer firefighter.
“It was sort of accidental,” she said.
But she realized she loved the field and decided to attend school to become an emergency medical technician. By then she was living in Connecticut and earned her paramedic certificate from Norwalk Community College in 1993.
That same year, she left her position as an EMT for Danbury Ambulance Services to join the Manchester Fire-Rescue-EMS Department.
Once there, “I worked my way up the ranks,” Burford said. Over 13 years, she worked her way from firefighter/paramedic to fire lieutenant and finally battalion chief when she left in 2006 to join Ridgefield. She eventually earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Connecticut.
Now Burford brings her experience to Seminole Fire Rescue. When she decided to leave Ridgefield, she knew she wanted to work in either California or Florida.
“Those are the two areas of the country you’ll find the movers and shakers in fire protective services,” she said. “Trends tend to come out of those areas.”
She focused her job search on Florida, and was also recently considered for the fire chief position with Largo Fire Rescue. The position was eventually offered to Shelby Willis, who came on board this past fall.
Burford accepted the position with Seminole Fire Rescue in early December and moved to Seminole at the end of that month. While exploring and getting to know the area, she’s had the chance to chat with locals about what they think of Seminole Fire Rescue – often without telling them who she is to ensure she received honest feedback.
“I just wanted to understand the perception [of SFR] that’s out there,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, people have a positive perception of the department and what we are able to do.”
So far, she’s impressed by Seminole Fire Rescue’s capabilities and professionalism, she said. She plans to spend the next few months getting to know the community, its leaders and SFR, she said.
But she has a passion for firefighter safety, she said, and that’s one area on which she’d like to focus moving forward. Though, she notes, SFR already has high safety standards.
“I think it’s really important that we, as an industry, are constantly evolving and improving what we do and how we do it in terms of safety,” she said. “That translates to a safer community as well. It’s an area of personal interest and concern.”
Other areas she hopes to focus on include professional development and educational programs for the community, specifically for children and seniors.
“But right now, my focus is on what we are doing, how we’re doing it and where we’re going in the future,” she said.