New Orange County, Fla., Fire Chief Hits the Ground Running

Firefighters are regularly exposed to carcinogens amid the smoke and soot of fires. As a result, new chief James Fitzgerald wants a higher priority on cleaning gear as soon as possible after an emergency.

by Joe Mario Pedersen, Orlando Sentinel / August 7, 2019

(TNS) — There have been more than 24,000 emergency calls to Orange County Fire Rescue since the new chief took his office on May 19.

Chief James Fitzgerald feels the pull of being in one of the busiest fire departments in Florida.

“Time management and not being able to be in multiple places at once has probably been the toughest challenge I’ve faced so far,” Fitzgerald said.

Making time for budget meetings, visiting injured firefighters, visiting every station in the county, staying up-to-date on the best rescue strategies and cutting-edge technology, opening up new fire stations and carving out a portion of the day to play with his twin 17-month-old great grandchildren is the life Fitzgerald lives.

His appointment came quickly after former Chief Otto Drozd III unexpectedly announced his retirement earlier in April.

While the announcement took many by surprise, few felt shocked about Fitzgerald’s appointment to the office, who was deputy chief at the time and had served Orange County Fire Rescue for nearly 40 years.

Originally hailing from Massachusetts, Fitzgerald’s grandfather was a firefighter and implanted the idea in Fitzgerald at a young age to do the same.

Fitzgerald moved to Central Florida in his younger teen years. When he turned 18, Fitzgerald joined Killarney Fire District prior to its formation into Orange County Fire Rescue in 1981.

“I remember taking scissors and cutting off the Killarney Fire Department patch and the sense of pride I had sewing on the Orange County patch,” Fitzgerald said. “I felt like was entering something larger.”

He was.

OCFR is one of the busiest fire departments in Florida serving a population of 1.3 million people, and an additional 72 million visitors coming to Orlando.

As a result, the agency receives 350 emergency calls per day. To manage the high call volume, OCFR employs more than 1,300 firefighters, paramedics, clerical and administrative positions.

The agency is also training 80 firefighters this fall and expecting to add more to their ranks in January.

But Orange County shows no signs of slowing its growth which can be a problem for the county’s more rural areas where firefighter coverage is stretched thin. To address the need, OCFR is opening additional fire stations such as Station 87 in Avalon Park, with plans to break ground scheduled for October, Fitzgerald said.

Some challenges the agency faces lie within the firefighter profession itself.

When Fitzgerald’s appointment to chief was approved during a County Commission meeting in May, he told those present he would make cancer prevention a department priority.

Florida legislators felt the same after getting Senate Bill 426 passed on July 1 that grants certain benefits to a firefighters upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer.

“I was happy to see that, and it’s a step in the right direction, but I want to prevent cancer in firefighters altogether,” Fitzgerald said.

Firefighters are regularly exposed to carcinogens amid the smoke and soot of fire-based emergencies. As a result Fitzgerald wants a higher priority on cleaning gear as soon as an emergency as been handled.

“I want it hosed down, put into a bag and sent to be laundered. At no point should that equipment be touching bare skin,” Fitzgerald said. “My goal is years from now, for people to look back and cancer is no longer the leading cause of firefighter death and disability.”

Among the many challenges on Fitzgerald’s watch was handling the resignation of firefighter Steven Brandenberger, 38.

Brandenberger, an OCFR firefighter of 13 years, was arrested July 22 by the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and was accused of setting up cameras inside air vents of his roommate’s bathroom and bedroom, according to a warrant affidavit.

OCFR relieved Brandenberger of duty the following day after the arrest, according to the department.

“We have to act immediately when we’re faced with cases like this,” said Orange Director of Public Safety, Danny Banks. “The chief is one who wears his heart on his sleeve, so you get a case like this and he takes it to heart. He knows the actions of one firefighter can negatively impact the reputation of a thousand firefighters in the department.”

Fitzgerald actively speaks of his pride in Orange County Fire Rescue; a respect his peers are highly aware of.

“You have a case like Brandenberger whose actions could negatively impact the department. The chief, being actively aware of that takes action and then compliments, acknowledges the other 1,000 firefighters who choose to do right,” Banks said. “You have to remind them that we hold ourselves to a higher level of accountability then the average citizen, and you highlight their achievements on duty and off duty. [Fitzgerald] knows that.”

Fitzgerald also sees the importance of recognizing the actions of folks not in the fire service, such as Geovanie Hernandez, an off-duty corrections officer, who rescued a man from a burning building.

Fitzgerald presented him with the Distinguished Service Award in July for his heroism.

The first two months have been busy for Fitzgerald, which comes with the territory for a large agency. And while much of Fitzgerald’s job is maintaining OCFR’s growth alongside the blooming community, he’s determined to retain the sense of a neighborhood fire department.

“I want our men and women to take advantage of any time to knock on doors and place or replace smoke detectors. I want parents to stop by a station and learn more about the department. I want to see kids in the fire station, inside crawling around looking at that equipment,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been given an incredible opportunity of leadership and I couldn’t be more proud of this department. I want everyone to see what I do.”

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©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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