City fire chief to retire
PUNTA GORDA — Some colleagues questioned his logic when Rob Hancock left a longtime career as assistant fire chief of the mammoth, 600-employee Hillsborough County Fire & Rescue Department in 2005 to become chief of the little Punta Gorda Fire Department, with just 30 employees.
But to Hancock this small, waterfront town seemed a perfect fit. Its size allowed him to have a close-knit relationship with his firefighters and the community, Hancock said Thursday.
After 38 years as a firefighter, including the past seven and a half as Punta Gorda’s chief, Hancock, 60, is set to retire by the end of this month.
“It’s closer,” he said of the Punta Gorda department. “You know the (employees), their families, you meet their children, and we’re closer to the community programs.”
He looks back at a series of local achievements, including:
• Established programs where residents can drop off leftover prescription drugs or contaminated hypodermic needles.
• Increased the department’s cultural diversity by hiring the first female and African-American firefighters.
• Updated firefighting gear.
• Increased the
department’s community involvement by sending representatives to such organizations as the Charlotte Regional Hospital Civic Advisory Board, Drug Free Charlotte County and United Way.
• Launched the city’s first Advanced Life Support paramedic service.
Hancock said he has warned city officials to begin planning to replace several fire trucks that were purchased in 2003 and 2004 before his arrival. He said he also continues to recommend the city boost fire department staffing. It’s been operating at a minimum level, with two firefighters per station.
Hancock’s achievements are laudable, considering the tough fiscal times, said City Manager Howard Kunik.
“They’re a small department,” he said. “But we make do with what we have, and overall, the department and its personnel are well thought of throughout the community.”
Hancock has become such a friend to city officials that they can kid him about leaving.
“Thank God he’s gone!” quipped Kunik. “Go away already!”
Originally from Tampa, Hancock became a firefighter in 1973 by a twist of fate. He was recruited to volunteer at the Hillsborough County fire department because he knew how to drive a tractor-trailer truck, he said.
The department had only 17 firefighters at the time. Hancock became a career firefighter within a year and rose to company captain within his first decade.
“Yes, I’m coming from a big department, but I know that small department,” he said.
Effective Oct. 1, Operations Chief Ray Briggs will be appointed interim chief. It may take several months before the city solicits applications for the post, said Kunik.
Briggs, 43, who has been a Punta Gorda firefighter for the past 23 years, said he will be among the applicants.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor, professionally and, I’ve got to say, personally,” he said.
What has made Hancock such a good leader is his propensity to include all department members in accomplishing department missions, said Briggs. He recalled how Hancock returned from a vacation determined to address the problem of residents trying to drop off used needles or drugs at the fire station.
Under Hancock’s direction, Briggs said he worked with Drug Free Charlotte County, the Punta Gorda Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to get the drug drop-off station established two years ago.
“It’s been a group effort since day one,” Briggs said. “We’ve been blessed to have him in the organization and, collectively, we’ve made great progress.”