ST PETERSBURG TIMES--Hillsborough County

Assistant fire chief is a fresh face
A 24-year-old has stepped into the Lutz volunteer job after years of service.
By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published May 25, 2003

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LUTZ - When Cory Foy first wanted to join the Lutz Volunteer Fire Department, he didn't meet the age requirement of 18.

"The day I turned 18, the paperwork was all in and I was ready to go," he said.

Now, at 24, Foy is preparing to command a department run for the last eight years by men a dozen years older.

"Cory conducts himself in such a way that age never comes up," said Gary Guy, a captain with the department.

Foy was named assistant chief in November, serving under interim Chief Fred Nalls. Ben Fisher, president of the Fire Department's governing board, said Foy might remain assistant chief through the year.

Fisher and Nalls also indicated that Foy isn't a lock for Nalls' unpaid job. "I'm going to be there as long as I need to, until we get the right person in," Nalls said.

But Foy currently is Lutz's only assistant chief. And Nalls is involving him in chief-level matters such as personnel decisions and equipment purchases.

The men run an organization that retains some nostalgic trappings, but few of the realities, of a small-town fire department.

Largely gone are the days when volunteer firefighters could hurry from their shops, offices and citrus groves to fight a fire, or when knowing how to operate a fire hose was sufficient training. The science of firefighting has evolved so even volunteers must take 160 hours of courses.

The scarcity of such volunteers has led to repeated closings of volunteer fire departments, including last year's conversion of the Town 'N Country Volunteer Fire Department to a paid station of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.

"Eventually, they will put a paid crew in here," Foy said.

Lutz long ago acquired the population to justify a paid station. But Fisher and other community leaders have maintained the volunteer station, one of six in the county, partly through an annual mailing to homeowners. In a growing community, this request for dues generates nearly $100,000 a year.

The Lutz company is a hybrid between the classic volunteer department and a career one. Aspiring firefighters from around Tampa Bay train in Lutz while they seek paid positions elsewhere. That blesses the department with motivated volunteers, many of whom have taken college course-work in the field.

But it has downsides. Some of these volunteers live and work far from Lutz, and have difficulty reaching emergencies. Lutz uses some of its money to pay a crew of volunteers to work at the station on weekdays.

Career departments regularly pluck the best volunteers from Lutz's ranks, creating turnover. Foy's seven years with the department is one of the longest tenures of any volunteer.

Given the turnover, Fisher and Nalls wanted an assistant chief who was not seeking a career in the field. Foy, a computer buff since age 11, is a Web master for Hillsborough County.

He was named assistant chief in October, after then-Chief Ed Davis and Nalls reassumed the job.

"He tends to interact well with folks," Nalls said. "He's a good upstanding kind of guy, with good morals. He makes mature decisions."

Foy, a graduate of Land O'Lakes High School, is a former drummer, keyboard-player and guitarist for a Christian punk rock band called Atomsmashers Names Suzie.

"He's a people person," said Lt. Miguel Rivera, a 29-year-old Lutz firefighter. "He knows how to deal with every kind of person on their level of training."

It didn't hurt Foy's chances that last October, he was elected the department's Firefighter of the Year. That's achieved through surveys in which all the department's firefighters grade their colleagues.

The award, announced at an annual dinner, took Foy by surprise.

"I was up with my camera, and I was going to shoot the winner," he said. "I am so grateful that I had a camera strap, because I just dropped my camera."

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com