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Hillsborough Fire Rescue celebrates 40 years of fires, stories

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Published:   |   Updated: August 28, 2013 at 07:51 AM

TAMPA — Wayne Garrett, is tall and lanky and at 62 still sports that bushy moustache typical of old-time firefighters. He lumbers about with old and new pals at the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue’s 40th birthday party Tuesday afternoon, pumping hands slapping shoulders, being free with hugs.

Among this crowd, Garrett holds a special place. He was among the first crop hired as paid firefighters in Hillsborough County in the fall of 1973. Prior to that, the county’s unincorporated areas were protected by volunteers; eager, but not too well versed in the science and art of fighting fires.

Garrett started as a volunteer at 17. He didn’t go out on fire calls or even ride the truck.

“We were called junior firemen back then,” he says.

A couple years later, Garrett went in to the Army and came out in 1973. Chet Tharpe, the first director of the paid fire service, hired him right out of the Army, Garrett says, to man the station in north Tampa.

“I was the only one there,” he says. Calls came to the station and to a gaggle of volunteers who answered “hot lines” in their homes. They would go directly to the scene and Garrett would drive the truck and bring the equipment.

“Aw, it was fun,” he says. “Chet would bring my check to me every other Friday.”

The county fire service organized as an all-volunteer department in 1950, working out of one fire station that covered all of Hillsborough County from Keystone to Fort Lonesome. Before that all fire calls in the county were answered by firefighters with the Florida Division of Forestry.

Since Tharpe hired the first paid firefighters in 1973, the department has grown exponentially. Now, with a $118 million annual budget, a growing number of firefighters also are emergency medical technicians and paramedics. A bulk of their 80,000 calls a year are not for fires as much as they are for other public safety emergencies like car wrecks, injured or sick people and rescues.

The department also provides fire prevention inspections and conducts fire investigations, puts on fire-safety programs and offers safety training to the public.

Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, son of the first director of the paid department, says his father would have loved to have been at the 40th birthday bash, held at the headquarters on East Hanna Avenue. He said his extended family has always included all the firefighters and paramedics in the county fire-rescue service.

His dad used to go to Starke to purchase military surplus vehicles, the judge recalls, which were brought back and refurbished as fire trucks. “And every truck had a bell.”

There now are 980 paid firefighters and 160 reserve responders, which are volunteers, working out of 43 fire-rescue stations that cover 909 square miles of the county and serve more than 800,000 people.

The ceremony on Tuesday remembered the past through a photo montage of the department and honored six firefighters who died in the line of duty since 1973. Recognized were Robert Baltimore, who died in 1983; Jeffrey Holt, 1988; Darryl Dzugen, 2001; Gregory Reeher, 2005; Keith Adams, 2005 and Jonathan Riegg, 2006.

Garrett retired two years ago, two years shy of 40 years of service. He tried to make it, he says, but bypass surgery got in the way.

He shakes hands with Cliff Hitchman, who, at 59, was among the second batch of paid firefighters hired in 1974.

Now, badge numbers are in the 1,200s, Hitchman says, “My badge number was 14.”

He worked out of a fire station in Lutz, he says, where he volunteered before he was hired.

Getting the job wasn’t that difficult, he says. “Chet called me in, I got a physical and was hired,” says Hitchman, who retired in 2005 and now is a referee for NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball games.

“My starting pay back then was $8,643 a year,” he says. “There were not a lot of people waiting in line to be hired.”

He says rolling on calls back then was interesting. Firemen hung onto the bars and stood on the bumpers at the rear of the trucks. They wore plastic helmets.

“It was like in the old movies,” he says. “Things were simpler then, that’s for sure.”

Both hinted at memorable stories, but hedged when asked for specifics. One dealt with being locked in a bathroom with a dead guy; another involved being dragged into a creek by a cow.

“We’ve got stories,” Garrett says, “but we can’t talk about them.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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