Voted in unanimously by the Ithaca Common Council in its Wednesday meeting, Robert Covert ’89 will serve as Ithaca Fire Department’s new fire chief.
Covert has worked for the IFD for 30 years, having served first as a firefighter and later deputy chief under former Fire Chief Tom Parsons, who retired in August 2022.
Having first gained exposure to fire service through his family — much of whom he said also worked in the industry — Covert volunteered for the local fire department in Lodi, New York as a high school student.
Covert went on to study at the School of Industrial Labor Relations, simultaneously volunteering at East Hill Fire Station, where he also lived during his first three undergraduate years. During his senior year, Covert moved to campus to serve as a residential advisor for Clara Dickson Hall. After graduating, he was the building’s residential hall director for about three years before returning to fire service to pursue a career with the IFD.
In the interim between Parsons’s retirement and the appointment of a new fire chief, Covert served as acting chief. Mayor Laura Lewis and Common Council had the choice to pursue a search process for a new fire chief or to promote Covert from his existing role. Lewis submitted a recommendation to waive the search process and promote Covert, which the Common Council approved.
Lewis said that Covert’s 30-year dedication to the department demonstrated that he would successfully lead the IFD.
“He has a long history of dedicated service to our community,” Lewis said. “I worked at Cornell for many years, and during my tenure at Cornell, I also had the opportunity to interact with Chief Covert. And so I am very pleased that Common Council unanimously and enthusiastically supported [his] promotion [to] Chief Covert.”
Gary Farwell, an assistant chief for the IFD, has worked with Covert for over 29 years and expressed excitement for Covert’s new role.
“He’s always been somebody who’s worked towards improving himself and improving the department,” Farwell said. “He dreamt of [being fire chief] and he worked hard to get there, so I’m very happy and proud for him.”
As Fire Chief, Covert said he plans to lead existing IFD projects, such as the development of a new Collegetown fire station on East Hill and organizing a new record management system.
“The Collegetown station would be moving from its current location to the corner of Dryden and Elmwood,” Covert said. “We haven’t built a new fire station since 1990… so it’s a pretty big project.”
In addition, Covert is focusing on career and skill development for newer firefighters.
“We’re a younger department, so a lot of our focus is going to be on training and mentoring our new firefighters to take on roles, as senior firefighters have done in the past,” Covert said.
James Wheal, an assistant chief for the IFD, also spoke to Covert’s commitment to supporting IFD staff.
“I think one of his big priorities is the personal and professional development of the people who work here, and that lets us serve the public the best we can,” Wheal said.
Both Covert and Wheal emphasized adapting the department’s resource management and strategies to better serve the evolving Ithaca community.
“The work that we do is not the same as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago,” Wheal said. “The population is increasing and the demand for our services is increasing, and it’s changing, so it’s important that we work really hard to learn [about their needs]… and give people here in this community what they need to be safe.”
Wheal, who has worked with Covert for 16 years, expressed confidence that Covert would succeed in his new role.
“His leadership is second to none. He’s a kind, empathetic leader who demands a lot of his charges, and we work hard to deliver for him,” Wheal said. “It’s a very enjoyable back-and-forth that I think is efficient and provides great service to the community.”