Local News

County commissioners honor volunteer firefighters

— Forty-five firefighters from 10 volunteer departments were handed certificates Tuesday night honoring — in Placid Lakes Fire Chief Mark Fortier’s case — up to 35 years of service.

There are 1,106 square miles in Highlands County, and Emergency Operations Director Tim Eures said volunteer departments cover 1,000 of those square miles.

“They are a great bunch of men and women,” Eures said. If paid for their services, Highlands County would need to add nearly $5 million to its 2014 budget.

“I’m a county employee,” said Eures, who supervises the county’s volunteer forces. “They do a job and don’t expect to be paid for it.”

Rookie volunteers must train 240 hours, and afterwards firefighters attend business meetings and training nights. “And they’re doing one of the most dangerous jobs around,” Eures said. “They don’t get paid, they don’t get retirement, they don’t get vacation, if they get called to a fire they pay for fuel to get there. They love what they do, and if you love what you do, you do the rest of what comes with it.”

The audience would hear several last names repeated, like Eric Hanks, Jeff and Scott Hanks, who joined the Placid Lakes department in 2004. “They’ll be fathers and sons and mothers and daughters that have made it a family obligation,” Eures said. Every department responds in mutual aid to neighboring departments.

Handing out the certificates, Eures said, “is probably the least we can do to show our appreciation.”

“Four hundred and sixty combined years,” said Commissioner Don Elwell, who did the math on the combined service for the 45 honorees. “We appreciate it and we know what it would cost to provide a paid fire department for Highlands County.”

Commissioner Jim Brooks recalled the early days of volunteer fire departments, when a volunteer fell through the roof of a house on fire. “That was in the ‘60s or ‘70s. We’ve come a long way since then.”

“Thank you so much for your total dedication,” Commissioner Jack Richie. “Absolutely outstanding. Thank you.”

“We mean it sincerely, from the bottoms of our hearts,” Commissioner Greg Harris said.

Twenty-one firefighters got five-year certificates, 13 received 10-year papers, five were honored for 15 years.

Receiving 20-year certificates were Benjamin deBree of DeSoto City, Scott Mann and Mike Deery of West Sebring. Litton Walker of West Sebring served 25 years, and Richard Gavagni of Highlands Park served 30 years. Mark Fortier served 35 years.

The full list is available at http://www.hcbcc.net/county_commissioners/docs/agendabackup.pdf