By Seth Daniel
By all accounts, Fire Chief Robert Butler is going out on a high note.
After serving for 16 years as the Everett Fire Chief, Butler said this week he will retire from his post in early July. The 62-year-old has guided the fire service through the drastic changes after 9/11, the advances in the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) port, the spike in calls for service and the current response to the opiate crisis.
Not bad for a guy who, despite having a long line of firefighter blood in his family, never intended to be a firefighter – but rather an ocean researcher traveling the high seas.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who ran around with a fire helmet on all the time,” he said this week from his office at Central Fire. “I was around it my whole life, but this wasn’t in my plans…I majored in biological and marine sciences at Suffolk University. My goal was to work on a research vessel traveling the oceans. The was my plan and my father, who served on the Everett Fire Department, convinced me to take the Fire Exam as a back-up plan. I studied for it and got to know the job and was offered a job. I’m very grateful he suggested that. It’s been a great job.”
Chief Butler has served for 39 years and worked his way up through the ranks, being appointed to the service by former Mayor George McCarthy. He was appointed chief 16 years ago under former Mayor David Ragucci and served under former Mayor John Hanlon and current Mayor Carlo DeMaria.
His father, Roy Butler, served on the Department and retired as a lieutenant. His uncle, Arthur Butler, also served as chief – leaving that post the day before Butler was sworn in.
After serving so many years through so many valleys and peaks, Chief Butler said he began to think about retirement earlier this year.
“I started thinking about it a year ago and I really made my decision in January,” he said. “I talked to the mayor and told him my plans. I always had the age of 62 in mind. Maybe because my father retired at 62. A few people I came on the job with have retired in the last year or two and they are all enjoying it. I have a place on the Cape and seven grandchildren. I’d like to spend more time with them and this will let me slow things down to do that.”
Chief Butler has not only risen to success in the ranks of Everett, but also statewide and nationally. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and is the chair of Metro Fire. He is also the chair of the Massachusetts Fire Service Commission, which is a gubernatorial appointment and oversees the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Also a gubernatorial appointment, he is on the Advisory Committee for the Fire Sciences Department at Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC).
He said having the Chief’s Association has been very vital to his success as the Everett Chief. He recalls having come into the job rather suddenly and, one week in, being told by City Hall that they needed to go over some problems with his budget.
Being a frontline firefighter all his career, Chief Butler said budgets and administration were suddenly thrust upon him – and that’s the case for many chiefs around the state.
“When you become a chief, you’re kind of on an island,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the chief’s association, it would be impossible. We rely on it so much. When I retire, I’ll be doing part-time work for the Metro Chiefs and the Chief’s Association. That’s a vital part of the fire service in Massachusetts. People don’t know that. To have that support network of chiefs is so important. You go from being a firefighter your whole career and you come into a chief’s job where you’re a manager and an administrator. It isn’t response based and there’s a lot to learn.”
Over the years, Chief Butler worked some incredible fires, including the Vocational School fire in 1983 and the Everett Square fire where a whole block was lost.
However, it was a house fire on Myrtle Street that he will never forget – a fire that took the life of one of his men, Tony Conti.
“That was back in 1988 and it was the hardest day on this job, losing a man in my company,” he said. “I was a captain and one of my men got killed at the fire. It was on Myrtle Street and was actually across the street from Tony’s house. That was one of the hardest days.”
Butler said he has also gained a lot of expertise as an authority on LNG as chief, with Everett having the first LNG port in America. The first LNG load came in 1971, long before he was chief. However, as the commodity sought to expand around the world, Butler was commonly called on to testify regarding the safety and response on LNG.
“The LNG has been a big part of my career,” he said. “That presented a lot of opportunities for me. I’ve traveled all over the world and the country with the Department of Energy to testify. I’ve been in Canada and the Bahamas to testify. That opened up a lot of opportunities to meet some people in that industry.”
Butler said he couldn’t fail to mention how 9/11 changed everything about the fire service. He said that when he came on, they simply fought fires. Now, the fire service is called upon to respond to less fires, but three times as many calls – on things as new as opiate overdoses. In addition, he said he spend about one-third of his time on being prepared for terrorism responses.
“I spend a great deal of my time dealing with terrorism related things,” he said. “That’s changed so much. It’s had its benefits too because it has all of us working together so closely and in such good communication. We work well with law enforcement and there was never a good relationship between law enforcement and the fire service before. We were forced to work together and now we are very close…We are much more prepared today than we were 16 years ago. It’s unfortunate how it has come about.”
Bringing it back to Everett, Chief Butler said the Department and the people in it have been great to work with – making the City safe and working well together.
“This is a good department,” he said. “It always has been. There are a lot of good people working here and they do good work. I’m very proud we’ve been able to keep fire deaths very, very low in Everett. That’s a tribute to the people who work here.”