The Chapel Hill fire station on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was quiet as it turned 5:20 p.m. on Thursday.
A team was out on a call following the thunderstorms that had plagued the area an hour earlier. The old building echoed the years of service and work that had occurred within, and the original fire pole still stood confidently in the middle of the gathering space.
Fire Chief Matt Sullivan was in his office surrounded by memories of his long career with the Town of Chapel Hill. Newspaper articles, degrees from UNC, a Drug Abuse Resistance Education teddy bear and a picture of Sullivan shaking former President Barack Obama’s hand were among the few items on the wood-paneled walls.
Town Manager Maurice Jones said Sullivan is set to retire on Jan. 31, 2020, finishing out his nearly 32-year career with the Town of Chapel Hill.
Sullivan’s life and career
Sullivan moved to the Chapel Hill area when he was a teenager and went to UNC with a desire to create music videos. In his junior year, he interned with the Chapel Hill Police Department in the police crisis unit and later accepted what he thought would be a temporary two-year position as a public safety officer in the Chapel Hill Public Safety System.
When the Public Safety System split into three different entities, Sullivan chose to pursue police work, where he went on to have an extensive law enforcement career. He went from being a street police officer to an undercover drug investigator, which pushed him toward community policing and D.A.R.E.
“D.A.R.E. and community policing set me on a different trajectory because I went from undercover drug work and being a cop's cop to really looking at community and community change,” Sullivan said. “I figured social work might be the way to solve all those problems.”
Sullivan attended the UNC School of Social Work without the intention of getting a degree, but it stuck. Later on, he moved to be the UNC campus coordinator of substance abuse treatment and education program in student health. He also did training work with UNC Athletics.
After his stint at UNC, he went back to work for the Town and became a social worker in police crisis. This path led him to New York City and the realization that he wanted to attend law school, which he did part time. He then returned to Chapel Hill to work as a lawyer for the Town until he took an emergency management job in the fire department in 2014.
A nontraditional path
Sullivan never had dreams of being a fire chief when he was appointed interim chief in May 2015.
“I think it's because I didn't have direct trajectory in the fire service. I came with some different thinking and a different way of doing things,” he said.
Sullivan was focused on creating an environment of contribution and communication with servant leadership being the focus.
“Servant leadership is so important in that, first and foremost, there is no job that is more important than any other job in this fire department or in this town,” Sullivan said. “Really the most important job in this fire department is the folks that ride the trucks out of these fire stations and meet people on their worst day.”
Master Firefighter Heather Robinson said that new initiatives in the town have created more opportunities for discussion because people's opinions are requested in the decision making process.
“The true degree of leadership is that I don't need to be here," Sullivan said. "I've got a team from the entry-level firefighter up that can come to work and do their job. The true test of leadership is that it keeps on going when I leave here.”
Since starting his position as fire chief, fundamental changes have occurred within the department, with a redefined mission statement being one of the developments.
“We’re doing some great stuff, and that's not me – that's the great people of the Chapel Hill Fire Department that have locked in and got on board and really worked hard to further this wave of where we go in the future,” Sullivan said.
In June 2017, Sullivan underwent a very unexpected triple bypass surgery. During this process, he reflected on his career and experiences.
“What I realized in driving this professional career ahead is that I’ve left a lot behind and did not do as well in certain areas of my life as I should have,” Sullivan said. “And I'm fortunate to be here and fortunate to have had the sort of career I’ve had, too. But I think it's time to go back and get things right.”
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