Tarpon's new fire chief has familiar face
By KELLEY BENHAM
TARPON SPRINGS -- Firefighters were anxious about meeting the new fire chief Friday. But then in walked someone they already knew.
After a national search, the city announced that the best man for the job was already doing it.
Kevin Bowman, who has served as interim chief since Harry Leonard retired in July, beat 48 other applicants from 21 states to become head of the department where he has spent his entire career.
"We are extremely excited," said Andrew Kuhn, president of the local firefighters union, which had endorsed Bowman. "He's a perfect fit."
Bowman, 40, accepted his promotion with understatement. He didn't make any speeches. "I'm looking forward to new challenges," he said.
His first day as chief was much like any other day at work, except for all the handshakes and backslaps and congratulations.
It means something to firefighters to see one of their own earn the top job, said Fire Marshal Rick Butcher.
"It's incentive," he said. "It shows if you go to school and further yourself it can happen. It's a positive for the city and for the department."
Bowman started with the department in 1982 as a firefighter and paramedic making $4.95 an hour.
He remembers clearly being handed brand new fire gear on his first day. He was 20, just out of St. Petersburg Junior College.
His new colleagues tricked him into wearing that heavy yellow gear the entire day, he said. He wore it all around the firehouse, even over to City Hall.
It was just the first in a career peppered with practical jokes. They balance the other elements of the job, he said, the slow days, the heartbreaking ones.
There are a lot of hard days, he said, but helping people is the reason he went into firefighting.
"What struck me was the compassion," he said, "reaching out to people in need."
He worked his way up to lieutenant, captain and then deputy chief. He coordinated the department's emergency medical services, which handles about 85 percent of the department's 3,000 calls each year.
Along the way he earned a bachelor's degree at Eckerd College and a master's in public administration at Troy State University.
His job now is mostly administrative, but he still goes on calls when he can.
Last week, when firefighters put out a kitchen fire at a house packed with trash and crawling with roaches, Bowman was there, sweating in the heat.
"I love to go out to fires," he said. "Not just as a chief. If there is a call I can help on that's fine, too."
The department has always named its chiefs from within its ranks, beginning with the city's first professional fire chief in 1947. This is the first time the city opened the search to outsiders.
City Manager Ellen Posivach chose Bowman from three finalists, including one from Pennsylvania. A fourth finalist from New York dropped out this week. She said Bowman's experience with emergency medical service and his knowledge of the city he has lived in for 25 years gave him the edge.
"He had the whole rounded scope of experience," she said.
The City Commission must ratify her decision at its Tuesday meeting. Mayor Frank DiDonato has said he foresees no problems.
The search cost the city $2,086, but holding the job open for two months during the process saved $8,645, she said. Bowman's salary will be $73,513 a year.
Posivach could have saved money and time and appointed Bowman outright, she said, but that might have invited accusations of favoritism.
"Now Kevin is clearly in the position where no one can question whether he was rightfully appointed," she said.
Bowman won't brag about his qualifications. He'd rather talk about his daughter's singing voice, his weekend woodworking, or his upcoming church trip to the Vatican in Rome.
On Sundays, Bowman puts on a royal blue robe and sings bass in the choir at St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Church. The choir recently released a CD, and Bowman sings a solo on Track 13: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.
He didn't pick that song for his solo, but he knows something about having to grow up quickly. By the time he was 18, he had lost both parents and was responsible for raising his 14-year-old brother, working and going to school.
He lives in Tarpon Springs with his wife of 18 years, Cathie, a nurse.
They have two children, Kate and Kyle, and a dog named T.C. -- a dalmatian.
His immediate plans for the department include making it safer for firefighters, he said. He'll attend the National Fire Academy for fire executives in Maryland. He'll appoint a deputy chief to replace himself.
Eventually, he'll move into the chief's office. It's just one door over, but the windows are bigger.
The department already has a new $5-million building and the best technology around, said Kuhn, of the firefighters union. He sees Bowman as an innovator.
"I want us to be a leader, not a follower," he said. "Now we've got a chief to take us there."
-- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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