Seminole fire chief resigns

Chief Heather Burford said Jan. 14 that she “was permitted to resign” the previous day. She declined comment on the reason for her resignation.

SEMINOLE — Heather Burford has stepped down as the city’s fire chief in a surprise turnover atop Seminole Fire Rescue.

More than nine years into the job, Burford said Jan. 14 that she “was permitted to resign” the previous day. She declined comment on the reason for her resignation, but a well-placed source suggested the local firefighters’ union had forced her out over long-running operational complaints.

“I had the privilege of serving the community for nine years and during that time we made significant improvements in firefighter health and safety, staffing and response configurations, and community outreach,” Burford said in a texted statement. “I am and will always remain proud of the men and women of the department and proud to have worked alongside so many incredible communities and organizations, such as Seminole CERT.”

The latter reference is to the city’s Community Emergency Response Team, a disaster-preparedness unit formed in 2015.

City Manager Ann Toney-Deal said Bill Morelli, previously assistant fire chief for administration and emergency medical services, has been promoted to interim fire chief.

Asked for a comment on the reason behind the turnover, Toney-Deal only forwarded a memo sent to members of the fire department.

“I am writing you today to notify you that Chief Heather Burford has resigned from her position of Fire Chief for the City of Seminole,” Toney-Deal wrote.

“I recognize that Chief Burford has played an integral role in the Fire Rescue Department, and I hope that you join me in wishing her success in her future endeavors,” she added. “Assistant Chief Bill Morelli will assume the role of Interim Fire Chief. I have every confidence that Chief Morelli, along with our fire administration team, will successfully lead the department through this organizational change and will support all of our Fire Rescue personnel in continuing to provide excellent fire and EMS services to our community while the search for a new fire chief begins.”

Mayor Leslie Waters said she was informed of the chief’s resignation “after the fact,” when Toney-Deal sent an email to her and all council members on the evening of Jan. 13.

Of Burford, Waters added, “I wish her the best.”

A source suggested that Burford’s departure was preceded by a series of meetings of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2896 in which members aired complaints about Burford’s management decisions. Complaints involved the chief’s overtime policies, a perceived lack of educational opportunities, poor communication with department personnel and low morale among the rank and file.

Things came to a head in a December meeting of Local 2896, after which the city manager was contacted and a sit-down between Toney-Deal and Burford was held, according to one insider.

“In essence, she was asked to resign over a lack of trust regarding operational issues that have come up and which she was made aware of for over a year,” the source said.

A Connecticut native with 28 years of experience in the firefighting field, Burford was hired as Seminole fire chief in 2013. Prior to that she was fire chief in Ridgeville, Conn., and was hired by Seminole to replace George Bessler, who retired after three years in the fire department’s top job.

This is a developing story. Return to TBNweekly.com for updates.