Volunteers wary of fire chief's changes

Steps toward increased professionalism are seen by some asa way to eventually eliminate volunteer firefighters.

Published July 9, 2006

When fire Chief Richard E. Stover came to town last November, he started changing things.

There are new training requirements for firefighters, new equipment, new uniforms. It's all part of what Stover says is an effort to improve the fire and rescue service to make it more professional.

But, officials concede, some volunteer firefighters don't see things that way.

Some suspect Stover, who once served with the Coral Springs Fire Department, will eventually eliminate the volunteer fire department and replace volunteers with full force of paid firefighters. Others say Stover recently disrespected the county's fire chiefs by demoting them to the rank of captain. Yet more think the changes will just cost too much.

But Stover, a lanky man with glasses and a meticulously trimmed mustache, said the fire chiefs relinquished their titles voluntarily once they realized it made no sense to have multiple chiefs in a single department. Only one old-timer grumbled, he said.

Stover said he actually wants more volunteers, not fewer. Other changes are necessary to make the department more professional and secure accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation. In the end, they could save residents money, he says.

"The state of Florida has standards, the accrediting agencies have standards, and we're trying to become a better agency," Stover said.

The changes started long before Stover became fire chief. In April 2005, the department began hiring paid firefighters. Before that, officials made efforts to unify the disparate fire stations, which had previously operated relatively independently.

Today the department still comprises mostly volunteers. Of the 150 volunteers, about 100 are certified to actually fight fires. There are 27 paid career firefighters, most of whom were former Citrus County volunteers.

If you believe the brass, volunteer firefighters will always play a key role in Citrus County. But the department needs to double its contingent to meet emergency response time targets, Stover says.

"We should meet targets of seven minutes in urban areas and 12 in rural areas, and if we have enough volunteers we won't need to get more career guys," he said.

But that may be exactly the problem. With stricter training standards in place, it's harder to recruit volunteers, and some believe the department may have no choice but to eventually go entirely with paid firefighters.

If anyone has any illusions about that then they need to forget them," said Inverness volunteer fire captain Chris Henninger, 31. "If you take someone and tell them they can't really do anything for a long time because they have to get more training, that's a big turnoff."

Nancy Curtin, a member of the Floral City auxiliary unit that helps provide refreshments to firefighters on calls, thinks changes like improved equipment, new uniforms and more career firefighters may result in a larger budget and higher taxes.

But every few years the fire department has to replace defective or old equipment anyway, and officials say the new equipment is being phased in as old items wear out. Increases in the budget each year are normal, and they haven't been huge lately, officials say. And Stover argues that as the department becomes more effective, local homeowners insurance may decrease, actually saving residents money.

Officials won't deny that the rapid changes have led to dissension in the ranks. They even admit that some longtime volunteers have quit the service in anger or frustration, although they've been replaced.

But, Stover said he's seen even tougher transitions at other departments, where firefighters sometimes sabotaged each other's gear.

That hasn't happened in Citrus County, where volunteer Ken Rodgers said that while many volunteers have mixed feelings on the changes, others think they're necessary to make the department better.

"They all need to sit down, all the volunteers, and look at the big picture," Rodgers said. "They're just looking at the change right now and don't want to look down the road."

Moises Mendoza can be reached at mmendoza@sptimes.com or 860-7337.