Authier to retire after 13 years as South Hadley Fire District 1 chief, capping a 32-year career

Michael Spanknebel, left Hadley Fire Chief, congratulates  Robert Authier, South Hadley fire chief, on his retirement at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024.

Michael Spanknebel, left Hadley Fire Chief, congratulates Robert Authier, South Hadley fire chief, on his retirement at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Robert Authier's fire helmet given to him a this retirement celebration at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024.

Robert Authier's fire helmet given to him a this retirement celebration at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Robert Authier, right, retiring South Hadley fire chief, talks with, Michael Spanknebel, left Hadley Fire Chief and John Wood, during a celebration of Authier's   retirement at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024.

Robert Authier, right, retiring South Hadley fire chief, talks with, Michael Spanknebel, left Hadley Fire Chief and John Wood, during a celebration of Authier's retirement at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Robert Authier, middle, retiring South Hadley fire chief, talks with Jon Davine, left, Massachusetts fire  marshal, and Paul Morrissette, the East Longmeadow fire chief, during a celebration of Authier's   retirement at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024.

Robert Authier, middle, retiring South Hadley fire chief, talks with Jon Davine, left, Massachusetts fire marshal, and Paul Morrissette, the East Longmeadow fire chief, during a celebration of Authier's retirement at the South Hadley station Friday afternoon, Jan 5, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Robert Authier, the retiring fire chief of South Hadley’s Fire District 1, receives a silver bugle from Paul Morrissette, East Longmeadow fire chief, while Michael Spanknebel, left, Hadley’s fire chief, watches during Authier’s retirement celebration at the South Hadley station Friday.

Robert Authier, the retiring fire chief of South Hadley’s Fire District 1, receives a silver bugle from Paul Morrissette, East Longmeadow fire chief, while Michael Spanknebel, left, Hadley’s fire chief, watches during Authier’s retirement celebration at the South Hadley station Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 01-05-2024 5:19 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Outgoing Fire Chief Robert Authier won’t miss the fires.

Fires are traumatic and life threatening for the first responders and families whose building is ablaze, so he can’t say he’ll miss them.

Yet when Authier stays home on Monday instead of returning to the station, he will miss the men and women of the fire department. They have become a second family over his 13 years of service with Fire District 1.

“You’re like a family,” he said. “Being the fire chief, I always say they’re like my kids. They all have to get home at night and as the fire chief it’s my job to make sure they get home safe.”

Now it is Authier’s time to go home and exchange his hose for house slippers. After 32 years fighting fires in Holyoke and South Hadley, he will enter the station one last time on Saturday. Capt. Thomas Stark will serve as interim chief starting the day after Authier’s retirement and continue until the Fire District 1 Prudential Committee hires a new chief.

Over his time as a first responder, Authier has witnessed his job description change. When he began his career in the early 1990s, Authier put out fire after fire. Yet the increase in fire alarms, sprinkler systems and fire code enforcement has lowered the number of fires to fight. With less crises requiring a hose, fire departments are now absorbing emergency medical service response by driving ambulances and training in basic medical technician work.

“Back during my father’s era, he had to drive people to the hospital and wait to receive medical care. Now people are dialing for the service because service is there. We can provide medical care to them on the way to the hospital,” Authier said.

Authier’s career began when his uncle, a lieutenant at the Holyoke Fire Department in the 1980s, convinced him to take the civil service test for police and fire. Authier happened to score higher on the firefighter exam, and he joined the Holyoke Fire Department in 1991. He stayed there two decades before taking the job as District 1’s fire chief on Jan. 3, 2011.

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Embracing the generalization of emergency responders, Authier led his department in regional emergency response. He worked with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to regionalize the search and rescue team. After the fatal drowning of a 12-year-old boy in 2008, Authier was one of many chiefs who supported the creation of a regional dive team in collaboration with the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council. He supported one of his firefighters joining the Hampden County Special Response Team as part of the technical medicine team.

In addition to his regional involvement, Authier grew his home base. He hired five new personal, set up a fire protection bureau and reorganized the succession of his team. Each new hire became a memorable part of his service.

“When you hire a new firefighter, that’s something ... you can tell that this is a dream come true for them. When you promote someone who’s worked hard, that’s nice to see,” he said. “They are just starting their careers, I’m at my end.”

Authier looks forward to taking a month to decompress from the stress of the job. He doesn’t have plans for the future, but Authier says he looks forward to cooling off and discovering what’s next.

“As you see the last of it winding down, you’re excited but it’s also strange because I won’t be coming to work on Monday,” he said.

Search for a new chief

Meanwhile, the Fire District 1 Prudential Committee began the process to find a new fire chief. District 1 Prudential Committee Chair Bruce Perron said South Hadley’s bylaws dictate that a third-party organization handle applications and exams for fire and police personnel. The committee simply appoints the highest-scoring applicant.

“It makes it easy in house to pick a new chief because it takes it right out of our hands,” Perron said. “Once you get out and hire a company, you are essentially handing it to them.”

The job application opened on Wednesday and closes on Jan 24. Public Safety Consultants LLC will head the job search and exams. In order to gauge public opinion and needs for the department, Director of Public Safety Consultants Wayne Sampson will hold a Zoom meeting on Tuesday at 5 p.m. for public comment. The link for the meeting can be found on the Fire District 1 website.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.