From the ranks: Winter Haven's names new fire chief

·4 min read
The new Winter Haven Fire Chief, Joseph "Sonny" Emery Jr., officially took over Jan. 10 and will be sworn into his new position on Thursday.
The new Winter Haven Fire Chief, Joseph "Sonny" Emery Jr., officially took over Jan. 10 and will be sworn into his new position on Thursday.

WINTER HAVEN — The City of Winter Haven will swear in its new fire chief on Thursday.

Joseph "Sonny" Emery Jr., 46, was promoted to the position of fire chief on Jan. 10. He's overseen the department in an interim role since last June.

While Emery said he's a man of few words, he does have one to describe the way the promotion made him feel: honored.

Elsewhere: Lakeland Fire Department adding 6 new positions to reduce mandatory overtime pressure

Another promotion: Haines City promotes Thomas Murphy as fire chief

"It felt like God had just opened the door that I needed to walk through," Emery said. "I feel like I'm where I need to be right now in the department."

Emery, the son of a firefighter, started his career in Polk County around 25 years ago. He was a volunteer, part-time firefighter for about six months at the county before taking an open position in Winter Haven in 1998, where he's been ever since.

He fell in love with being a firefighter: the knowledge of how to handle emergencies, the comradery, the schedule.

"I was just eating it up. And I still am, actually," Emery said.

Emery has served as the fire marshal for the department since August 2017. Now that he's officially chief, the position has been taken over by Hunter Hart.

Emery is dual-certified as a firefighter and police officer.

When announcing the appointment to the city commission on Jan. 10, City Manager Mike Herr said both internal and external candidates were considered for the position before Emery was selected, and that they were all "very strong."

Herr said Emery's seven months leading the department inspired himself and Public Safety Director Charlie Bird, to draw the conclusion that he was "up to the task of being our new fire chief." Bird said Emery is truly a "firefighter's firefighter."

'Time to give it arrest': Winter Haven Police officer Carol Bradley retires after 30 years

"I think organizations get stronger when you can promote from within," Herr said. "And I'm most pleased to be able to say that we have been able to make this appointment from inside our fire department."

Emery is officially taking over the fire department as COVID-19 continues to rage, a dilemma Emery said is affecting departments across the county, not just his. The Winter Haven Fire Department has mask mandates for employees while working on engines. Additionally, the department is using temporary outlying stations to spread out its firefighters from one central location.

"That way, the shift isn't wiped out if one person comes to work positive," Emery said. "It seems to be working."

As of right now, firefighters being out sick hasn't been enough of a problem to mandate overtime among the remaining workers. Emery said volunteers are picking up enough shifts to make up the difference. But the department still isn't fully staffed.

One of Emery's major goals moving forward is to increase retention and make new hires to offset retirements and resignations, some of which have resulted from a recent increase in calls and workload.

"We've kind of come across some firefighters that have just decided they're going to get out of the fire service altogether because of the increase of call volume," Emery said. "I want to make the Winter Haven Fire Department a place that is desired in Polk County to come and work for men and women. And not just work, but where they want to finish out their full career."

More firefighting tools: Polk County to spend $68 million on 17 new cancer-fighting fire stations

On top of stepping up recruiting efforts, Emery also wants to see the fire department become accredited under his watch.

But if there's one thing Emery emphasizes, it's accessibility. He wants to be more proactive in his approach as chief, working with the community to do things like detecting fire hazards or helping with smoke detector installations. And he wants to be "readily available" to the firefighters he oversees.

"I don't think, I know, that I will be a chief that will be here for my people," Emery said.

Emery is married to Patricia Emery, who works as a registered nurse at the Winter Haven Hospital. The couple has five children together.

According to the city's budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, Emery's salary is $95,000.

Emery will be officially sworn in at his oath of office ceremony at 10 a.m. on Thursday at Nora Mayo Hall, located at 500 NW 3rd St. in Winter Haven.

"I'm really planning on taking this department to the next level," Emery said, "because I feel like I'm in the right place for that."

Maya Lora can be reached with tips or questions at Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: New Winter Haven new fire chief took over this week

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting