With his bushy “fireman’s” mustache, it seems fitting that Zephyrhills’ new fire chief, Verne Riggall, was born in Texas, but the lifelong firefighter has spent more time in the Sunshine State than the Lone Star state.
Riggall, 58, was hired to be the full-time fire chief in Zephyrhills about two weeks ago. He was the fire chief in High Springs for 31/2 years. He left in September 2011 because his position was eliminated in the city’s budget to save money.
Riggall had been retired for about a year when Zephyrhills City Manager Jim Drumm called him about becoming Zephyrhills interim chief. Riggall had once worked for Drumm, who was city manager in High Springs before leaving for Zephyrhills.
Riggall was born in Amarillo, Texas, before moving to Florida in grade school.
“We were Navy brats,” said Riggall. “My grade school was in Lake Mary. I finished my elementary school in Sanford, where I grew up, and went to junior high and high school in the Longwood area.”
It was near Longwood that Riggall got a first-hand look at the work of firefighters.
Riggall said he was 16 and hanging with friends when a fire started in a nearby packinghouse.
“When we arrived [at the packinghouse], the volunteer firemen in an old, old beat-up truck … were trying to put the fire out. It was an old tin shed-type of building and it fell down and one of the firemen got hurt. So we helped him out, we got him out and we dragged him over and wrapped up his arm where he got cut, and I thought that was pretty interesting; it was kind of cool.”
He and his friends decided to become volunteer firefighters a few weeks later.
“We signed up, and that’s where I became a fireman — in the Forest City Volunteer Fire Department,” he said.
Riggall held every rank and position in a fire department, including paramedic, before becoming fire chief in High Springs.
“I’ve been a paramedic since 1979,” Riggall said. My paramedic number is 1911. Notice that’s four digits. Today’s paramedics have six digits. I’ve been around a bit.”
Riggall believes in being a “working chief” and is fully qualified to fight fires.
“I believe wholeheartedly that towns such as Zephyrhills need working chiefs; they don’t need a chief that sits behind a desk. They need a chief that can fight fires, drag hose and hang with the guys and do just as good as they can. The chiefs that do not get dirty with their men ought to find something else to do. That’s my own personal thought.”
The new chief is working on several projects for improving the fire department. A white chalkboard in his office has 15 to 20 projects listed and there are more on his desk, he said.
One major project is to improve the fire department’s community involvement.
“This fire department needs to get back to the community,’ he said. “It belongs to them. I told the guys the first few days I was here that this is a community fire department; you work for the community, and if you don’t want to work for the community, you need to work somewhere else because it’s what we’re going to do.”
When he has the opportunity, Riggall likes to go minimal camping, and as a hobby he collects fire memorabilia and books.
“I am an avid collector of fire memorabilia,” he said. “I have 161 fire extinguishers, every helmet I’ve worn in fire service, fire toys, of course.” He also has patches and other items. He will be decorating his office soon.
One of Riggall’s most prominent features is his big fireman’s mustache. He has had it most of his life.
“In the old days all firemen had the big bushy mustaches,” he said. “The point of the mustaches was that it would filter out the carbon particles. I’ve had it since I was about 18, and it’s continued to grow in. The mask that we wear doesn’t mess with it so it’s all good. It’s a bit longer than it has been, but I’m likin’ it.”
Riggall has been married to his wife, Maggie, for 21 years. They have two children, Adam and Meagan. They have a home in Venice, but “currently I live in the small room at Station 2,” the chief said, laughing. “But I am going to begin looking around here.”