Mayor Toni Harp announced Thursday afternoon her choice for New Haven’s next fire chief: John Alston, a battalion chief from Jersey City, New Jersey.
The search process for New Haven’s new fire chief began this past January, when former Fire Chief Allyn Wright retired after just a year and eight months in the role. According to the New Haven Register and the New Haven Independent , Harp selected Alston over two other finalists for the position: Vincent Landisio, the former fire chief of North Haven, and James Garrett, the battalion chief and public information officer for the Kansas City Fire Department in Missouri. In her remarks at City Hall, Harp described Alston as a “multidisciplined executive fire officer” and praised his career as a 35-year member of the Jersey City Fire Department.
“[Alson’s] notable service and extensive knowledge cover the broad range of what New Haven absolutely needs in a fire chief,” Harp said in a press conference Thursday.
Harp went on to highlight Alston’s expertise in firefighting tactics, fire prevention and community risk reduction. She also said that Alston has experience in homeland-security strategies and counterterrorism training techniques.
And in addition to prior experience in emergency management and fire administration, Alston has also been a consultant to cities across the nation.
“Chief Alston is a master instructor in hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction protocol,” Harp said.
In an interview with the News, city spokesman Laurence Grotheer said Harp recognized Alston’s diverse range of expertise as “the 21st century model of a fire chief for modern American cities.”
When working as the commander of the First Battalion in Jersey City, Alston was responsible for an area that included five fire stations and 10 fire companies, in addition to the Holland Tunnel, Ellis Island, Liberty Park, City Hall and more, according to reports by the New Haven Register. He also served for over a decade with Jersey City’s Heavy Rescue Company, which responded to the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Harp said at the press conference that Alston will bring “all of this extensive knowledge, experience and ability to bear full-time to benefit the City of New Haven.”
In his first remarks at City Hall, Alston presented his vision for the beginning of his term.
“My goals are first to do a thorough assessment, and that usually takes about 15 to 18 months, surveying the public’s perception of the fire department, but also looking at goals and performance standards,” he said.
Harp’s announcement follows months of turnover in the New Haven fire chief position. After Wright’s retirement, Assistant Chief Matt Marcarelli briefly served as acting fire chief until former assistant chief of operations Ralph Black returned from retirement to take over as interim fire chief.
Grotheer explained that the search process for the permanent position had a national scope, and that “it just so happens that [Harp’s] choice comes from out of state.”
After he was introduced by Harp at City Hall on Thursday afternoon, Alston also appeared later that night before the Board of Alders Aldermanic Affairs Committee, which needed to confirm his appointment through a full-board vote.
Local activist and New Haven resident Barbara Fair attended the Board of Alders public hearing, and said Alston was thoroughly questioned on multiple topics.
“I was very impressed with, hopefully, the next fire chief,” Fair said. “At one point [during the alder meeting], I felt like I was in an inquisition, but he responded to every question with command and authority.”
When asked what he thought about an outsider coming to lead the department, Alston noted he is familiar with New Haven firefighters because he has previously helped train some of them.
Fair added that after hearing Alston speak, she felt compelled to testify on his behalf before those present.
“I asked the committee to please consider all his qualifications and choose him to be the next fire chief because he would be good for our city and not allow the structural racism that is in the DNA of America to get in the way of choosing this man to be fire chief,” Fair said.
Next up, Grotheer said, the alders will do a “thorough vetting process,” but that he expects no obstacles to Alston’s appointment. He added that Alston would likely begin his duties as fire chief within the next few weeks.
Chief administrative officer for the mayor’s office Michael Carter headed the search committee for New Haven’s new fire chief.
Correction, Sept. 30: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Vincent Landisio is the fire chief of North Haven. In fact, he is the former fire chief of North Haven.