Fire chief started on first rung
In 1982, Jeffrey Malzone came to East Lake Fire as a volunteer. His subsequent experience, college degrees and communication skills won him the top job.
By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published April 25, 2005

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EAST LAKE - Horses brought Jeffrey Malzone to East Lake.

But a sense of responsibility and obligation has kept him here for more than 20 years.

It's those feelings that prompted Malzone to put his name in the pool of applicants for fire chief, knowing the department had some major wounds to heal and he had some goodwill to return.

Earlier this month, the 47-year-old was named fire chief, a position left vacant by the retirement of Chief Jeff Parks in December. Parks left the position after years of hostile relations with board members on the East Lake Fire and Rescue Commission. That tension trickled down into the ranks , as well as into the community.

More than 40 people submitted applications for the job.

"We did an exhaustive search throughout the United States," said Tom McKone, chairman of the East Lake Fire and Rescue Commission. "To be a fire chief you have to be well-rounded in all things, not only (be) a good firefighter, but (be) good with finances and people. And, of course, it helps when you have someone who knows every single building in the district. ... Chief Malzone was far and away the best candidate."

When Malzone came to East Lake in 1981 there weren't many buildings.

Malzone moved to East Lake from Fort Lauderdale, where he tended bar and worked with thoroughbred horses. A year before his move, his horse, Full of Energy, had won a race. Malzone wanted to be closer to Tampa Bay Downs, where he could better enjoy his hobby.

"I was just trying to survive and do the things I enjoyed," he said. "But I think everyone starts to eventually feel like you need to become more responsible."

The fire department provided a place for him to do just that.

In 1982, Malzone began volunteering at the station with the hope of a full-time position. Within two years, he became a driver and gained experience fighting fires. The department's small size - it then had just one station - provided quick opportunities for promotion.

But with that accelerated climb came pressure.

In 1987, Malzone was named captain, which meant he was no longer just responsible for himself on a call, but for the entire crew.

"It was this enormous sense of responsibility," Malzone said. "But you just do it, you just keep calm and do it."

By the early 1990s Malzone had been promoted to district chief, managing three fire stations and 10 fire service personnel. In 1994, he earned his associate's degree in fire science technology from St. Petersburg Junior College. And in 2000, he earned a bachelor's degree in management and public safety from Eckerd College. A year later, he was named fire marshal. In that position, he developed the department's fire prevention program.

"If you look on my walls, the department paid for all of this," Malzone said Thursday morning, pointing to the framed diplomas hanging on a otherwise barren beige wall in his office. "I feel a certain amount of obligation."

Still, when Malzone was asked to be interim chief in December, he was reluctant. Malzone, a Hamden, Conn., native, grew up with a father who was active in local politics. Malzone said he wasn't sure he wanted to put himself, or his wife, Linda, and son, Sean, 16, in such a public position.

He got a taste of the headlines in 2000, when a memo he wrote went public. Malzone claimed that Daniel Bobel, then a candidate for the fire commission, asked him to close an investigation on minor fire safety infractions at his business. Bobel publicly denied the claim. Bobel beat incumbent Chuck Schult for Seat 2 that year.

"In January, (after the board assigned him the interim chief's duties) I thought, "I really don't want to do this,"' Malzone said. "But then I felt like maybe I could get us back on course."

Malzone's salary as chief is $86,405, compared with his salary of $82,240 as fire marshal. As chief, he helps operate three fire stations and oversees 37 fire service and administrative personnel. The East Lake fire department serves 35,000 residents. The district covers 33 square miles in unincorporated Pinellas County.

Most agree the respect of the firefighters and trust of the commissioners are key for the job of chief.

"He seems to be concerned about communication," said driver-paramedic Ron O'Byrne, who has worked as fire and rescue worker since 1993. "He's been here for a long time and he's very business-oriented, so I think he will be able to make changes if given the chance."

At the top of Malzone's list as new chief are negotiating a new contract with the firefighter's union and overseeing the completion of a new fire station. He also has instituted monthly shift meetings with firefighters.

His ultimate goals are more far-reaching.

"Over the years the morale in the department has been in question," he said. "Ultimately I want to bring back a sense of ownership among the men. I want them to see it as a career, not just a job."

--Nicole Johnson can be reached at njohnson@sptimes.com or 727 771-4303.

[Last modified April 25, 2005, 01:04:14]