The Zephyrhills City Council appointed a new fire chief during a special meeting on Aug. 16.
It was the fourth new fire chief within four years.
Brian Swartout has more than 32 years of fire service experience, and most recently served as Division Fire Chief for the Seminole Tribe Fire/Rescue in Broward County.
As division fire chief with the Seminole Tribe, Swartout supervised a staff of 104. He was also responsible for fleet management, capital projects, new purchases, and rehabilitation of apparatus and equipment maintenance.
Swartout previously worked for the Lee County Port Authority, City of Deland Fire/Rescue, Flagler County Fire/Rescue, St. Johns County Fire/Rescue, City of Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue and Broward County Crash Fire Rescue.
City Manager Steve Spina said Swartout “definitely stood out” among the three candidates that were interviewed for the post.
With continual turnover at the fire department’s leadership position, city council members indicated they’d like to see a “multiple year” commitment from the new fire chief.
In May, Daniel Spillman resigned from the position after being appointed in Oct. 2014; he replaced Verne Riggall, who also resigned after being under fire for how he had managed the agency from 2012-2014.
In a 2014 memo to the council, Spina addressed budding concerns about the direction of the department under Riggall’s leadership, saying there was a “clear lack of coordination and communication in Zephyrhills Fire Rescue” and “a clear sense of dysfunction and morale issues” that were affecting day-to-day operations.
Swartout, who said he was unaware of the past issues within the department, now oversees the 23-member fire rescue crew that responds to approximately 3,000 calls annually.
The new chief said the first few days on the job have been “a whirlwind” as he becomes familiar with the staff, the city, and other municipal departments.
Swartout said his initial duty is to build relationships with his staff before making any major department-wide decisions.
“I’m more of the opinion that it’s important for me to sit back and observe, and listen…so I have a better idea of which way I need to go,” Swartout said. “I don’t believe in coming in anywhere and making (immediate) changes — I want to see what’s going on before I address anything.”
He added: “In my mind, I’m here to be supportive with what the guys do, and the message I’m telling them is that, ‘As the new fire chief, I’m here to support you and get you what you need.’”
With discussions already underway for the city’s 2016-2017 budget, Swartout said he likely won’t add much input into the fire department’s general fund, which reached $2.4 million in 2015-2016.
“I think I may be too late to have much of an impact into the next fiscal cycle, but what it does do for me is it does give me an ability to see what the needs are throughout the year and hopefully come back with some ideas or some solutions to issues,” the new fire chief said. “It actually works in my favor — I look at it as a blessing where I have time to learn and then move forward.”
During a council meeting in May, the city manager presented council members with several possible scenarios to consolidate fire services, and reduce operating and equipment costs. However, the council opted to keep the department and its two fire stations intact.
At the time, Spina noted there’s duplication in services with the city and Pasco County Fire Rescue, since the county also responds to all medical and fire calls.
Published August 24, 2016