Going back into new Chelsea Fire Chief Bobby Better Jr.’s ancestry, one would find a long line of Chelsea residents stretching back into the early 1800s when they farmed the Prattville and North Chelsea (now Revere) areas.
Though the family might have started out as farmers, more recently they’ve certainly cornered the market on Chelsea firefighting.
“In the old days, the Better family in Chelsea might have been farmers, but the family business for a long time now has been firefighting,” said Better this week after having been tapped by City Manager Jay Ash on Monday.
After a long and exhaustive search and a solid one-year fill-in job by Interim Chief Dave LaFond, Ash chose Better, who will be 60 in January, to take the department in a higher direction.
“I’m very excited about Bob’s service to the city and country, and pleased that he is ready to accept this newest leadership challenge. He has demonstrated both a grasp of modern firefighting and a vision for where to take the Chelsea Fire Department next. I anticipate great things from Chief Better,” said City Manager Jay Ash.
Ash said that Better will be sworn in this Friday and there will be a formal ceremony at Chelsea City Hall on Jan. 5th.
Better has served on the Chelsea Fire Department for 36 years, working his way up the ladder – no pun intended. Being a firefighter’s firefighter, the toughest decision in his career was moving several years ago from the front lines to the front office.
Certainly, no one can say he hasn’t done it all.
He began as a firefighter for 13 years on Engine 2 and Ladder 1 at the Central Fire Station. Then, he spent 18 years as a captain in the Prattville and Mill Hill Stations. After that stint, he took the Fire Prevention job, and later became a Deputy Chief Shift Commander at the Central Fire Station – where he remained until this week.
Beyond that, Better is a key member of the state emergency management team’s response unit – and he routinely responds to disasters and works with shoring up structures for the rescue unit. He responded to the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City and to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. More recently, he helped with the aftermath of the Springfield tornado disaster last summer.
All of the above, though, is certainly not the extent of his comings and goings within the Chelsea Fire Department.
Both of Better’s grandfathers were on the Chelsea Fire Department. His uncle was a firefighter here, and his Dad was a Deputy Chief. Better, obviously, followed in his father’s footsteps, and now his son, Robbie, has also joined the “family business,” having served as a firefighter at the Central Station for the past four years.
“When I came on, an old Deputy Chief told my father, ‘The kid’s a thoroughbred. He’s got it on both sides of the family,’” joked Better.
He said he felt very honored to have been chosen as the chief, though he didn’t dream of the job, nor did he think he would get another shot at it. Previously, when the position opened up the last time, Better applied but said that he lacked high-level supervisory experience – trying to go from Fire Prevention to the Chief’s job.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think I would have another bite at the apple,” he said. “I thought Deputy Chief was my final destination. When the job opened up again, I thought about it and decided I had to do it…It’s really an honor to be in this position. I don’t know if you dream of it. I used to see my father and my grandfathers and I didn’t even realize I would be a firefighter. To become the chief, though, is even more unexpected.”
Admittedly, Better faces a department that has a tremendous and historic past, but has recently fallen upon a period of lower morale. Beyond that, he will help lead the department, along with City Manager Ash, through a top-to-bottom evaluation of operations in the department. The end result of that evaluation could become somewhat controversial.
More than anything, Better said he wants to bring up the department’s pride.
“I definitely don’t want this place to be tarnished in any way,” he said. “It hasn’t been, but we have to preserve what we have…I want the group here to get the Espirit de Corps back. It’s not totally gone, but it’s been higher before. I think we can get everyone back on track and be a better department for it.”
He said he would start in that vein by going around to every station and talking with every member of the department.
“My first task will be personally talking to every one of the firefighters,” he said. “I have to talk to every firefighter and find out what’s working and what’s not. If I can track a trend with those conversations, I will. If we’re doing something right, we’ll expand it. If we’re doing something wrong, we may in fact have a problem and we’ll work quickly to rectify it.”
That tour of the personnel will be in advance of what is expected to be a somewhat controversial top-to-bottom evaluation of the department. Already, a private firm has been retained by the City to look at all operations of the department. The suggestions in that firm’s final report will likely spark a bit of a battle between City Hall and Central Fire.
Better said he would play the middle in that process, and said the report and the new realities of firefighting would be considered alongside what is best for his department.
“There will be a top to bottom review and the good thing about it is every member of the department will be a part of it,” he said. “If there is something important they want to address, they will be able to…The whole demographic of the city – the City itself – is what we’ll look at, where it was and where it will be with all the new construction. There are a lot of new buildings that are security sensitive, like the coming FBI building and the MITC building. Those are things that pop up on a Homeland Security map. There’s also the residential side too. They demand different things. They’ve come to rely on the Fire Department to be there when they call. We don’t have any calls that go unanswered. If we don’t respond, we make sure somebody else does.”
For now, though, Better is moving into his office and getting used to answering the phone with his new title, “Chief.”
He’s also dreaming about whether a fifth-generation of the family might soon find its way to the Chelsea Fire Department.
“One of my grandsons is named Jake, and my daughter told me they named him that to cover all of the family in the Fire Department,” he said. “Both he and his brother, Sam, they tell me they’re going to be on the Fire Department too. They already have their little fire gear and every time they see me, they make sure to put it on.”