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Largo Fire Chief Shelby Willis departs for job in Utah

By Kathryn Varn | Times Staff
Published: March 8, 2018
Largo Fire Chief Shelby Willis is leaving the department for a deputy chief job in Utah. The decision is personal for Willis and her family, who spend weeks out of each year snowboarding, skiing and mountain biking in the very not-Florida terrain. [Courtesy of city of Largo]

LARGO — Shelby Willis’ career in the fire service started more than two decades ago, volunteering in the 1-square-mile town of Redington Beach.

She joined Largo Fire Rescue a few years later, making history in the male-dominated field several times over as the agency’s first female SWAT paramedic, then division chief, then, in 2013, fire chief.

Now, Willis, 50, is taking her career to Utah, where she will serve as deputy fire chief of the Ogden City Fire Department north of Salt Lake City. The decision is personal for Willis and her family, who spend weeks out of each year snowboarding, skiing and mountain biking in the very not-Florida terrain.

"We’ve dreamed about this," Willis said.

Deputy Chief Joseph Pennino, who was promoted to the post last year, will take over as interim chief after Willis’ last day Friday. City Manager Henry Schubert will conduct a nationwide search for a permanent replacement, a process he expects to take three to four months.

"Shelby is an excellent fire chief," Schubert said. "I hate to see her go, but I also want her and her family to be happy."

Willis moved to Clearwater as a child from Niagara Falls, N.Y. She graduated from Countryside High School, then joined the Air Force and was stationed at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo. She returned to Florida in the early 1990s and, after her volunteer gig, worked as a paramedic for Sunstar Paramedics, Pinellas County’s ambulance provider.

She joined Largo in 1997 as a firefighter-paramedic. During those days, she came to appreciate the camaraderie in the department. She and two colleagues used to play jokes on each other: they’d put live frogs in her boots, she would sneak dead bugs into their beds.

"We talk about how they become your second family, and they truly do," she said.

She was promoted to lieutenant in 2005, then division chief of emergency medical services the next year. For the next six years, she ran Largo’s portion of the county’s elaborate EMS system, including during several years of brewing tension between fire departments and county officials over funding and territory.

In 2012, she took on the role of deputy fire chief. A year later, after her predecessor resigned amid an investigation into his leadership style, Willis became acting chief. After beating out 53 applicants, the post stuck.

Along with being Largo’s first female fire chief, Willis was only the second ever in Pinellas County. Seminole Fire Chief Heather Burford joined her soon after.

"Every step of the way, it didn’t matter if I was male or female," Willis said. "If you can do the job, you can fit in."

She furthered her education during her career, too. In 2003, she graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology. She earned her master’s degree in emergency management in 2016 from Eastern Kentucky University.

Willis pointed to several accomplishments she’s proud of. She still wears her SWAT paramedic pin years after becoming the first woman to be part of the team. She worked with the county to solidify much-needed EMS funding and, with other local fire chiefs, helped shift the focus to reducing call volume. She also worked to bring her department up to the top rating by an organization that assesses insurance risk.

She’s enjoyed her career with Largo, she said, but she’s looking forward to her new adventure with her husband, Victor, and 10-year-old son, Brody.

"I’m both very scared and excited," she said. "It’s an amazing experience to be 50 years old and start again."

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.