NEW PORT RICHEY — In the early 1970s, an 8-year-old boy was killed in a house fire in New York. The death devastated his family, which included a teenage uncle named Dan Azzariti.
"It kind of leaves an impact on you the rest of your life," said Azzariti.
The death influenced Azzariti's career choice to become a firefighter, a job that has spanned three decades.
Next week, Azzariti, 51, will retire as New Port Richey fire chief after 31 years with the department. He has held the department's top position since 1995, making him one of the longest continually serving fire chiefs in the city's history.
"There comes a point when you know it's time to let other people come forward and take the department to the next level," said Azzariti, who entered the state's deferred retirement option program, better known as DROP, five years ago. "But, sure, I'd love to stay here forever. … I couldn't ask for a better place to work. Am I ever going to get that again? I don't know."
Fire Marshal Alex Onishenko, a 20-year veteran with the department, will serve as chief after Azzariti's departure.
Azzariti, who makes nearly $72,000 a year, left New York for Florida after high school and started out as a volunteer firefighter in Citrus County in 1974. At 20, he was elected volunteer fire chief. Then an instructor at the state's fire college in Ocala told him about an opening in New Port Richey.
He got assigned to Station 2 on High Street. He went on basic rescue calls, carried a puppy out of a burning home, hauled Santa Claus around the neighborhoods during Christmas. He drove a 1974 Dodge mini-pumper known as Squad 11.
One fire that left a lasting impression was the 1987 blaze that destroyed an entire downtown city block and caused about $500,000 worth of damage. He was inside one of the buildings when it started to collapse.
"The wall gave out on the other side," he said. "But it fell away from us."
Once he and other firefighters were headed to a scene when a car slammed into them at Gulf Boulevard and U.S. 19.
"We jumped out and worked on the patient," he said. "We switched from going to a fire to taking care of the person who drove into us."
In the early days, he said, the department's firefighters handled about 400 calls a year. Back then, it seemed that everyone knew their names, he said.
"We knew everybody," he said.
As the population grew, so did the department's capabilities. Firefighters can now administer advanced life support measures — defibrillators and medications, for instance — and the city's fire insurance rating has improved as the department's abilities have improved.
Azzariti said New Port Richey's is one of the smallest fire departments in the state to have its own urban search and rescue team, which is trained specifically for digging through rubble, for instance, or extricating accident victims from their cars.
These days, the department, which has a $2-million budget, handles between 3,000 and 4,000 calls a year, he said.
City Manager Tom O'Neill said Azzariti is well respected and has done a "fine job" as chief, particularly in dealing with the public. In July, Azzariti received a lifetime achievement award from the Florida Department of Health's Bureau of Emergency Services.
The soft-spoken Azzariti has another attribute, said O'Neill: "He's a nice guy. And that's always important."
Azzariti, who lives in Spring Hill, is married to Nancy, a dental hygienist, and they have three children, a 24-year-old daughter, a 21-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter.
So what is he going to do with all his free time? At just 51, he figures he'll look for another job at some point. But he also has a project.
About a decade ago, he happened to be at the Hernando Beach Fire Department and saw an old friend: Squad 11, the Dodge mini-pumper he used to drive around the city. He told the crew to let him know if they were ever going to put the truck up for auction.
They did, and last spring Azzariti paid $1,200 for the truck. His wife, he said, "wasn't nearly as thrilled as I was." He's got it parked in a shed at his home, and he plans to fix it up.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.