By Jeff Odom
Duty was light for volunteer firefighters Dec. 31 at Lutz Station 24. The memories and emotions left behind on the final day, however, were heavy.
At midnight Jan. 1, the turning of a new year meant the end of the line for volunteer fire associations in Hillsborough County, after a performance audit in September found the cost of running them outweighed the benefits.
County commissioners then voted unanimously in November to approve the fire department’s new reserve responder program, which staffed all volunteer houses with 78 paid career personnel instead of volunteers.
For the Lutz association, which was founded in 1952, the vote had a greater impact. It meant more than 60 years of history had reached its final chapter on New Year’s Eve.
“The people of Lutz have really appreciated what we do for them.” said Brandyn Dawson, a volunteer for the last two years. “I was raised in Lutz, and it’s been nice to kind of give back this way to a community where I’ve lived and be helping the same people and town that I was born in. It’s a privilege.”
Though most of the other five associations were losing money, Lutz stayed on stable financial ground with more than $150,000 in revenue – $85,508 coming from community support, donations and membership dues, according to the audit.
Residents and volunteers hoped that support would set the station apart, but the county opted for change. Now, Dawson, like so many other volunteers, will have to figure out what’s next.
“I’m really not sure what I’ll do,” Dawson said. “I want to start school. I want to do something still medical, maybe paramedic or nursing’s an option. Honestly, there are so many different directions I can be heading.”
Assistant chief Matt Storey, who has been a volunteer in the county for more than 11 years, transferred from Dover in March. He said one of the first traits he noticed about the community when he arrived was how much it gave back to the association.
He hopes to continue working with the department through the county’s reserve responder program, but with a wide pool of applicants, Storey said he may return to school.
“It’s been a whole new experience for me coming from the small Dover community, to Lutz, which has such a tremendous backing for the fire department,” Storey said. “I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve never seen so many people support a volunteer fire department, and it was really an eye-opener.”
Three-year veteran and acting captain Javaro Johnson, 36, chose Lutz so that he could be a part of the history. He said that the volunteers tried to talk to the county, but the decision was out of their hands.
“There were rumors here and there around October, and no one really paid attention to it. And one day it was really true, and some people were devastated,” said Johnson, who plans on spending time with his family after leaving the station. “It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s down to the last few hours. Just for it to go that easy, just because somebody else made a mistake, it cost everyone else big. There’s not much we can do about it now.”
Dawson said that he will miss being around the station he’s called home for so long.
“It’s really the greatest job in the world,” he said. “When you find something you love to do, it’s not really even a job. I’ve really enjoyed my time and definitely being part of the team is really great. What better job could you have, really?”
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