Jason Robitaille, says they “hit the jackpot” when they decided to move to Heber Springs, but it looks like it was a major “W” for the community when Robitaille was chosen as the new fire chief.
Forty-year-old Robitaille is highly qualified for the position he’s taken here, having worked in the fire industry for 16 years with six years of chief officer experience. He openly shared his education, training, and experience, but modestly left out one of the highest accolades he’s ever received. According to the Calaveras Enterprise, Robitaille was awarded the Presidential Hall of Fame Award from the California State Firefighters Association in 2015. It is the “highest award given by the 18,000 member association.”
The modest fire chief is an Arkansas native. His grandfather had a family farm in Mansfield, Arkansas where his grandfather’s 12 brothers and sisters all lived. He says he grew up on the farm until his parents moved him and his brother to California.
His interest as a firefighter stemmed from visiting the fire station with his father, who was a volunteer fireman. He said watching his dad when he got a call “instilled the desire to help others.” Having played football in high school and college, Robitaille said he likes the team environment of being a firefighter.
Upon graduation from high school, Robitaille returned to Arkansas and attended college at Harding University where he studied business administration. Also while at Harding, he met his future bride, Leah. Leah had come to Searcy from Chillicothe, Missouri to study physical therapy.
After graduation Robitaille first worked for the Sylvan Hills Fire Department in Sherwood. Later, he was an organ recovery technician for ARORA, the Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency. He flew all over the state to retrieve organs for organ donations and transplants.
Eventually he and Leah returned to California where Robitaille was kept very busy developing his career. He has been a paramedic firefighter and worked on an ambulance in Sacramento County, but he’s also worked to merge two fire districts into one. He’s been a grant writer, and a public information officer. He was first promoted to deputy fire chief, then two years later he was made fire chief.
He said as a fire chief his business degree has helped him considerably when it comes to doing his budget. He says a fire department is run like a business. You consider the customers, provide customer service, look for opportunities to streamline operations, be more productive, get rid of redundancies, and “give the taxpayer the most bang for the buck.”
Jason and wife, Leah, have now been married 14 years and have two sons. Carson is seven and will be in the second grade, and Luke, who will be in the fourth grade, is nine. Robitaille said he and his wife knew they wanted the boys to grow up in Arkansas and decided now was a good time to make the move; so Robitaille bought the family farm in Mansfield from his grandmother and began some development projects and building homes in the Russellville area about 6 months ago.
When the job in Heber Springs became available, he and Leah discussed it and he said Heber “checked all the boxes.” It’s a small town with a tight-knit community. The amenities are satisfactory. It’s close to the lake, which is similar to where they came from. They enjoy fishing, hiking, outdoor recreation, .and “Heber Springs has charm.”
Robitaille said he was impressed with the interview process here. He said it’s common for a mayor to single-handedly make a hiring decision, but the interview panel consisted of Mayor Jimmy Clark and members of the fire department. He said that shows the special relationship that happens here. He’s also been impressed with Heber Springs’ various departments working together for the common good. “That’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s what was really refreshing to me.”
The new fire chief said he had a warm reception from the Heber Springs firefighters upon his arrival. There are about 32 firemen, including volunteers and part-time, on the roster. The crew was called out on a fire his first day here, giving Robitaille the opportunity to observe the men and see how things are done here.
He’ll be using his first 90 days to get “acclimated as to how the operation runs” and go over programs and objectives with Captain Doug Perry. He’ll also be conducting a needs assessment to determine items they need and will be looking for grants and other funding to boost the financial status of the department.
Looking at possibly connecting with the schools for fire education, Robitaille said he may consider initiating a career training program for interested seniors at the high school or a juvenile fire starter program, which is a youth fire prevention and intervention program. As for continuing to chariot the football team in the homecoming parade, he said there have been some recent changes to their insurance, but if at all possible he wants to continue that tradition. He said he rode atop the fire truck when he was a captain of their football team too.
Robitaille says he’s been spending his free time getting familiar with the community and enjoying the amenities Heber Springs has to offer. He says he enjoys fishing (lake or river), 4-wheeling, Sandy Beach, the Community Center, and hanging out with his family over at the farm. Both boys are taking after their dad and will be playing Pee Wee football this fall.
Robitaille and his wife owned a physical therapy clinic in Calaveras County in Northern California where she worked. Since moving back to Arkansas they have sold the clinic and Leah is in the process of transferring her patient load to the new owners. Once settled in, it’s her “dream job” to use her doctorate in physical therapy to teach at Harding University in the physical therapy department.
Robitaille said the next step is to recruit his parents and brother to move to Heber Springs from California. He and Leah just put an offer on a house and are waiting to see if it goes through and have found a home church at the Church of Christ on Pine Street.
Chief Robitaille said Heber Springs is a big city compared to where they came from, but he said, “I hit the jackpot! I just can’t wait to get transitioned here full-time. I’m excited to be here!”