Residents of Starke have reason to be proud of their city fire department because of its dedicated employees and their determination to serve the people of the community in their area of responsibility. The department's primary mission is to fight fires, but firefighters can often be found at the scenes of traffic accidents or other places of trauma.

In 29 years of service with the Starke Fire Department, Chief Dwayne Hardee has delivered five babies in response to calls for assistance. While midwifery isn't part of his job description, his training as an emergency medical technician provides some knowledge in the field, and his desire to help others is a driving force in his life.

City commissioners recognize the need for a new fire station in a new location. The present building, one block off Call Street, has served the community well, but the site is now in a congested area that hampers the egress of fire fighting equipment when time is of the essence. Fire trucks need the ability to exit the station and move rapidly in any of the four directions; the present location is ill prepared for a rapid exit in any direction.

It is also too small to house the rolling stock now owned by the city. Lee Vincent, former city manger and Ken Sauer, current city manager, recognize the need for a new fire department building, possibly incorporating city administrative offices and the police department in a new location.

Vincent was adamant in moving the fire department to the site of the Bradford County Public Library on Jackson Street when the facility is relocated and the lot becomes available. A new library is to be built on Pratt Street.

Even though Sauer doesn't rule out the library site for a new fire station, he feels the city should explore long-range plans for city functions and review city needs in light of current trends. He proposes a study of all city buildings and space requirements before making a final decision on moving the fire department.

Sauer is correct in seeking to peer into the future for locating city functions rather than building a fire station in a poor choice of locations from the first get-go. The proposed library site for a new fire station would be a small improvement over the present site because the lot is too small, the present library building doesn't lend itself to renovation into a fire station and dumping traffic onto narrow residential streets stymies rapid response in emergencies.

City administrators should look elsewhere for a new fire house location. It's time to abandon expediency for long-range planning, which has often been in short supply, and attempt to envision what the situation will be 10 or more years from now.

Starke is moving south and the fire station should move with it, to a location that will provide rapid egress to all sections of the community.

The current station house was built for another era with two bays for fire trucks much smaller than those of today, with utility space on the ground floor and office and living quarters on the second floor. The second floor is comfortably furnished and "clean as a pin," with the stairwell opening into a large dayroom-type space, equipped with a 60-inch television set and other amenities for firefighters that aren't otherwise engaged. The television set and other items of equipment were bought and paid for by the firemen.

There is a small, efficient kitchen for preparing snacks and meals for men on duty, with cooking done by one of the firemen. The office is in a back corner of the building on the second floor in a rather out-of-the-way location. When the alarm sounds, the men have to run down a narrow stairway to reach the trucks.

Chief Hardee and his men maintain the building splendidly, keeping it clean and in good repair, but the facility leaves much to be desired for housing personnel around the clock, speedy exiting when fire strikes, enclosed shelter for fire fighting equipment and entering main traffic arteries to reach fires or other emergency situations.

Wherever the new station is built, an old nemesis, the CSX Railroad, poses a problem for which an answer has not been found. The city can't afford a station on both sides of the railroad, and yet, when a train blocks the crossings, fire equipment can only sit and wait, along with emergency medical vehicles, law enforcement officials and the general public. The fire department has stationed a fire truck at the old power plant (on the east side of the railroad) for use when the crossings are blocked, but no personnel are stationed there.

Hardee comes across as a caring public servant who sees his work as a calling, and plans to stay on the job past ordinary retirement time, having served 29 of the required 30 years. He was born in Starke, attended local schools and graduated from Bradford High School in 1974. He was the first, or among the first, 18-year-olds to be employed in the correctional system. A friend talked him into leaving corrections and going to work for the Starke Fire Department. He was promoted to Fire Chief in 1985.

Hardee has taken advantage of educational opportunities with certificates in related fields, including arson investigation, criminal justice, fire science and emergency medical training.

Hardee doesn't have much spare time since he works part-time as a medical technician for the county's emergency medical services department, but when time allows, he likes to participate in shooting skeet. He is married to the former Beth Jackson and they have three children, Ashley Moore, Karen Moore Crook and Evan Hardee.

The Starke Fire Department operates with nine full-time employees, including the chief and assistant chief, both of whom work regular 24-hour shifts, and 10 hourly employees. Three firemen are on duty 24/7. If a full-time employee is off the job, an hourly employee fills the shift, and receives $7 per hour for the shift. The hourly employees receive no other benefits. When a vacancy occurs in the full-time ranks, the position is advertised and applicants tested. If hourly employees apply for the full-time position, they have to follow the full routine, competing on an even footing with other applicants. While the system doesn't seem fair to current part-time employees, it insures the city gets the best of the applicants.

The starting salary (in Starke) is about $24,000 per year, competitive for small-town fire departments, Hardee said, but as much as $5,000 per year below salaries paid in larger departments, such as Jacksonville and Gainesville. While Starke currently has a stable personnel situation, it has also been used for training programs for young firefighters who transfer to larger systems once they are certified. Hardee says it isn't unusual for firemen to return to the Starke department after working in larger departments because they dislike commuting, see less danger on the job or just prefer to work near home.

The SFD generates no revenue for the city, therefore it represents a cost to residents, whether owners or renters, but few would want to live or operate businesses in the community without the protection afforded by the fire department. Probably more than 50 percent of the $649,417 budget goes for salaries and benefits, and we residents are getting a bargain for out "buck." The low salaries for trained personnel, compared to salaries in larger towns, and the limited number of full-time employees keep overall costs to a minimum.

Because of its presence and competence, the cost of fire insurance is affordable. Out in the county, fire insurance costs much more and, in some cases, is unobtainable.

There have been three memorable fires in Starke since I moved here in February 1978: the Call Street fire, the Sawyer Gas fire and the George T. Huggins home fire.

At the time of the Call Street fire (1979?) Court Street ran adjacent to the east side of the old courthouse (now part of the SFCC parking lot), with Green Buick Co. on the northwest corner and a couple of other businesses adjacent to the Telegraph building. Fire broke out about daylight Sunday morning. The fire department realized there was no way to save the buildings west of the Telegraph building if it burned, so their resources were directed to what amounted to a firewall (the Telegraph's west wall).

Chief Hardee feels the fire was successfully fought in saving other stores on the block, even though there were property losses.

Fire erupted at the Sawyer Gas facility on Edwards Road, about one block off U.S. 301, late one afternoon, fueled by LP gas. It created a very dangerous situation, especially since a large storage tank filled with gas was within a few feet of the fire. The fire department concentrated its efforts on keeping the storage tank cool and was successful in preventing an explosion that would have rocked the town. Owner Charles Sawyer moved the facility to vacant land on North Temple Avenue subsequent to the fire.

The Huggins home fire could have been a disaster. George and Bernice Huggins (deceased), and guests, had eaten dinner and, since it was a pleasant evening, decided to sit in the shady backyard. They had vacated the house and seated in chairs when the house virtually exploded into flame. A gas valve had given way, allowing gas to escape throughout the house, and, when ignited, it created a fireball that shook the neighborhood. Fortunately, everyone was out of the house and no one was injured.

The fire department was unable to save the house in this case; it couldn't have been saved under any circumstances, but firemen and friends were able to save some furniture and kept the fire from spreading. Developer Guy Andrews bought the lot after the fire, incorporating it into the business property on Orange Street.

Each year, coincidental with the first University of Florida football home game Saturday, the fire department collects money at intersections from motorists passing through town. While most people think the money is being collected to augment fire department amenities, firemen are actually collecting for the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy drive, a nationwide charity worthy of everyone's donation.

One of the primary duties of a good administrator is to keep departmental problems within the department and maintain good relations with personnel on the one hand and with city commissioners on the other. Chief Hardee is a low-profile administrator who supports his employees and maintains harmony with the city administration. He plans to extend his tenure beyond his 30-year anniversary later this year, and that is good news for everyone.

By Buster Rahn,

Editorial Writer