■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE – In 1941 Gasparilla Island was on alert, with the looming prospect of a world war in mind. Residents were taking turns standing on rooftops to watch for Nazi submarines in the Gulf of Mexico and Boca Grande Pass. When the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7 of that year, it spurred civic leaders and our government to put even more drastic security measures in place, realizing the necessity of being prepared for such an event to happen again somewhere else. Soon able-bodied men from every town were off fighting the war, but the few who remained were called to action to become volunteer firefighters and form makeshift fire brigades.
Many small fire departments have stood the test of time since then and are still active today. One of them is ours, the Boca Grande Fire Department. To celebrate 75 years of service to the Gasparilla Island community, Chief C.W. Blosser and the firefighters have put together a get-together and celebration on Wednesday, Oct. 24 from 2 to 4 p.m.at the station. There will be refreshments and tours of the fire station and the equipment, and the guys will be on hand to answer any questions you might have.
The history of our department is actually quite fascinating. On December 17, 1941 a group of island residents signed a state document that read, “We the undersigned citizens of Boca Grande, Florida do hereby enlist in the Service as Firemen under the authority of the Local Defense Council of Lee County, and do hereby agree to serve to the best of our ability and in the interest of public welfare, also to work for the establishment of a permanent fire department in the community.”
On December 31, 1941 Gov. Spessard Holland wrote back, saying, “Upon notification of your selection as Chairman of the Division of Water Supply and Fire Protection for the Boca Grande Defense Council, I am pleased to designate you for this office.”
In the letter he was speaking to Wiley Crews, who became fire chief of Boca Grande until Darrell Polk took the job in 1956, when he was just 26 years old.
By August of 1942 the first proper year of firefighting on the island was half done, and the allocated budget for the department requested through Lee County Commissioner Harry Stringfellow was for $1,600. That included insurance costs of $248, gas, oil and maintenance costs of $200, salaries and wages in the amount of $600, postage and stationery costs of $35 and equipment costs of $716.
The island was divided into four districts. When there was a call in Zone 1, the fire siren would sound one long blast. Zone 2 got two blasts, and so on. With 12 men responding to most of the calls, it gave them a general idea of where to head once the sirens went off.
Back then the fire chief received a paycheck of $12.50 a month, and volunteer firefighters were paid 50 cents for every drill they attended and $1 per fire.
In 1943 a Notice of Intention was filed to apply for local or special law to grant the island a permanent fire control district on Gasparilla Island, and for the appointment of a fire board.
On May 24, 1943 the Boca Grande Fire Protection District was officially created. At that time the list of officers and firefighters included Chief Wiley Crews, First Asst. Chief T.R. Hargis, Second Asst. Chief Louie Lanzl, Third Asst. Chief C.D. Van Vleet, Secretary and Treasurer R.C. Kuhl, FF D.O. Fugate, FF B.O. Bylaska, FF Richard Bowden, FF Arthur Smith, FF William Langford, FF Joe Harrison, FF A.W. Willis, FF William Hunter and FF Austin Bass.
In 1946 two lots were purchased from Troy Speer for $1,000, and the construction of a fire station in the middle of town began in 1947. As the tone and residents of the island began to change, so did the fire department. It increased in size to accommodate an increase in population, and more innovative equipment was being used to efficiently fight fires in very expensive homes. In 1979 the Fire Protection District also grew to include the Charlotte County tip of Gasparilla Island and Cole Island.
For many years the fire station and the ambulance service were two different entities. In 1987 talks were fast and furious, fueled by Dr. Hank Wright of the Boca Grande Health Clinic, to house an ambulance crew on the island 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dr. Wright persisted in his fight for a full-time ambulance and crew to be kept in the fire department instead of in a garage at the Health Clinic Annex building, where it had been housed for years.
By that time, under the supervision of Chief Darrell Polk, there were 15 volunteer firefighters, two pumper trucks and a ladder truck. There were no plans to hire any full-time firefighters at that time, but that would soon change.
Darrell and his family lived in the fire house until 1984, and they answered the phone 24 hours a day, He kept that position for 33 years, until 1989, when Lew Morgan took his place.
By that time, all volunteer firefighters were trained with the Sarasota County Vocational School. Lew stayed with the department for 10 years, until Chief Dave Edmonds took over in 1999. In 1993 the department got its first boat, after volunteer firefighter (and Sheriff ’s Deputy) Rich Caccavale created a plan to put a water pump onboard.
By 1998 the fire department had three full-time firefighters – Mike D’Angelo, Rob D’Angelo and Wayne Griffith – and by January of 2000 the department had six full-time certified firefighters in addition to a three-man administration. Firefighters then included Damon Williams, Wayne Griffith, Lee Cooper, Mike D’Angelo (who are all still with the department), Paulette Ladd and Steve Rose.
In 2001 plans were in the works for a fire station renovation under Chief Dave Edmonds, as the old location was no longer adequate to house modern equipment or full-time firefighter shifts. In the meantime, the fire department set up on property owned by the Gasparilla Island Water Association near the storage tanks at 18th Street. The facility was done within a couple years’ time.
In 2009 Chief C.W. Blosser took charge of the Boca Grande Fire Department after years of experience with Arcadia Fire Department, and he remains Chief today. The Boca Grande Fire Department now rotates five firefighters and one lieutenant per shift, as well as having two Lee County EMS paramedics on duty at all times.
Because our island is unique, our firefighters are as well. Some days you will find them hanging banners for a festival or setting up folding chairs for an event at the Crowninshield Community House. Other days you will find them rescuing cats from trees and checking fire extinguishers at local businesses. After Hurricane Irma struck a glancing blow to the island, they went door to door – to every house on the island – to make sure everyone was healthy and accounted for. The amount of community service they perform during times of peace and in times of duress is never known to most people who live here, but the scope is immense.
Of course they will always be found responding to accidents and fighting fires, too, and it isn’t until it’s you or your home that needs saving that you realize quite how important their job really is.