The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
Feb. 18—HAVERHILL — Robert O’Brien has spent most of his working life responding to emergencies, first with his family’s ambulance business and then with the Haverhill Fire Department.
A Haverhill firefighter since 1994, O’Brien knows the department inside and out. He has served in every rank and at every fire station in the city. He has also worked in the department’s Inspection and Prevention Unit based in City Hall. He has served as a deputy fire chief for the past 11 years.
O’Brien is about to step into the one Fire Department job he has never held — the chief’s position. Mayor James Fiorentini has announced O’Brien will replace retiring Chief William Laliberty.
O’Brien will be sworn in as chief Monday at the Water Street fire station, the mayor said.
Fiorentini said in addition to continuing the progress Laliberty has made in upgrading equipment and improving morale for Haverhill firefighters, he wants O’Brien to develop more diversity in the department.
“I have asked him to pay particular attention to recruiting more minorities and women,” the mayor said.
A Beverly native and member of the Beverly High School Class of 1979, O’Brien worked for his family’s ambulance business starting when he was a teenager.
In 1987, he and his wife, Joanne, moved to Haverhill, a community they were familiar with. He said his dad was a long-time friend of the owner of Shanahan’s Ambulance company, which was based in Haverhill.
After taking the Civil Service exam, O’Brien had job interviews with the Haverhill police and fire departments, and chose to become a firefighter.
“I had lot of friends in police and fire at the time,” he said.
O’Brien has been on the scene of many fires during his career with the department, including a serious blaze in a Bradford neighborhood about 14 years ago in which he was injured.
In announcing O’Brien would become the new chief, Fiorentini said O’Brien emerged from a detailed recruitment and testing process as the most qualified candidate for the job.
“He was given a test, called an assessment center (exam), where he was questioned at length by a number of current and retired fire chiefs,” Fiorentini said. “He successfully passed the test and showed he has the background, knowledge and experience to run the Fire Department.”
Fiorentini said O’Brien’s willingness to continue learning and his dedication to the department came through in the interview process.
The mayor said he has complete confidence in O’Brien to continue the progress that has been made in the Fire Department in recent years.
“Over the past five years, under the able leadership of Chief William Laliberty, the Fire Department has made great progress,” the mayor said. “Stations have been upgraded. New fire trucks and other equipment have been ordered. The morale of the department has been uplifted.”
Fiorentini said O’Brien is already familiar with every member of the department and with the firefighting plans that have been prepared for every large building in the city.
“He is ready to go on day one,” the mayor said. “He fully understands the Fire Department and firefighting and will fight to keep the people in the department safe.”
O’Brien’s candidacy for the fire chief’s position in 2016 taught him that in addition to years served in the department, formal education played a major role in who the mayor chose for the job. Laliberty became chief and O’Brien remained a deputy.
Following that 2016 selection process, O’Brien returned to college and got his bachelor’s degree in fire science in May of 2019 from Anna Maria College in Paxton, and then his master’s degree in public administration in May of 2020.
O’Brien was one of two candidates from within the Haverhill department being pushed for the chief’s job this year by the Haverhill firefighters union. The other internal candidate was Deputy Chief Raymond Robinson, a member of the department since 1998.
In advocating to hire from within, the union sent a letter to firefighters unions in other communities asking that none of their members apply for the job so it could be filled by a member of the Haverhill department.
The new chief coming from within the department gives firefighters a leader they know and who knows the community. It also causes a likely ripple effect of promotions in the department — someone from a lower rank moving up to the deputy’s position being vacated by O’Brien, and then someone moving up to the position formerly held by the new deputy chief, and so on.
O’Brien said his desire to rise in the department’s ranks came easily to him, probably because of his experience in business.
“For me, it’s a natural progression to look ahead and move forward,” he said.
O’Brien feels he has good people skills and is able to get the best out of those he supervises.
“The Haverhill Fire Department has tremendous employees who are good people,” he said. “I want to continue the good work Chief Laliberty has done and continue to reach out to the community to encourage diversity in the department, which the mayor wants as well.
“Both the mayor and chief have done a good job getting us the equipment we need, including two new pumper trucks that are in production and a rescue truck that arrived recently,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of work done on station roofs and windows and I’ll be working on assessing things.”
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