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Eleven former Belleair Bluffs firefighters now starting over with Largo

After years, even decades, working with the same men in the same station in the same town, 11 Belleair Bluffs firefighters are starting over.

On Oct. 1, Largo took over fire service for Belleair Bluffs.

Belleair Bluffs' fire station remains, but its department is gone.

Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace offered to hire all 12 of the small city's firefighters. One chose to retire, he said.

Largo will use the Belleair Bluffs station, but the Belleair Bluffs guys won't be working there anymore. They'll be integrated into Largo's department. Wallace said he didn't want them to be isolated from the other 132 firefighters.

"I'll miss my crew that I worked with more than anything," said Macho Liberti, 30, a Belleair Bluffs firefighter for six years. "The station itself, not so much."

Going from a small department to one more than 10 times larger is "almost overwhelming," said Steve Langere, 53, who worked at the same station his entire 27 years with Belleair Bluffs.

He and his peers said it wasn't easy to leave a place where they chatted with people in the grocery store and delivered gifts to kids each Christmas. "We really love the community," he said.

All, even officers, are starting at the bottom of the chain, on probationary status.

Eight firefighters got a bump in pay. Three lieutenants took cuts. None complained.

"I'm grateful," said Dale Fletcher, 50, a former Belleair Bluffs lieutenant. "I will pay my mortgage next month."

Situations and salaries vary among the men. Liberti, for example, got an annual increase of about $1,000, according to information from both cities. And Fletcher, a 20-year Belleair Bluffs veteran, took a loss of more than $10,000. Both will make the same annual salary, about $43,000, the maximum for new hires, Wallace said.

Last week, the group began a two-week training program meant to get them up to speed on Largo's procedures and reinforce their skills.

Wednesday, they took part in a maze drill at the St. Petersburg College Fire Academy and Public Safety Training Complex in Pinellas Park to make sure they're comfortable in intense situations.

"You get extremely claustrophobic and if you don't get used to it, it will freak you out," said Otto Sandleben, division chief of training and safety.

In a pitch-black training tower, meant to simulate a smoke-filled building, firefighters weaved through a wooden labyrinth rigged with assorted booby traps.

Waiting to participate in the grueling drill, Fletcher called the transition "refreshing" and said he was looking forward to honing his skills.

Loaded with breathing apparatuses and gear weighing about 65 pounds, groups of three crawled on their knees and elbows and slid on their bellies through tight tunnels. Three recently promoted Largo fire lieutenants took turns guiding the firefighters with a thermal imager.

Along the path, they were confronted with dangling wires that snagged their equipment, a spiral staircase, a ramp that simulated a collapsing floor and passageways so narrow they had to remove their air tanks to get through. Throughout the drill, Sandleben shouted out commands:

"Make sure your partner gets through!"

"Make sure you keep track of your breathing!"

Most of the firefighters' tanks had enough air for about 40 minutes, Sandleben said. But because of the heat and intensity of the drill, they had a hard time regulating their breathing. Several ran out of air after about 20 minutes, he said. No one completed the maze in one try.

Two Largo firefighters also participated. They'll all wrap up training Friday.

Mark Young, who has 20 years' experience in fire service and six at Belleair Bluffs, admitted there was an "uneasy feeling of being a rookie" again. But he and several others said they were looking forward to specialized programs that Largo has to offer, such as technical rescue and hazardous materials training.

"It's a big department with a lot of opportunities," said Young, 46. "(At Belleair Bluffs), I was never going to be able to do that."

Because of the proximity of Largo and Belleair Bluffs, the departments have been fighting fires together for decades. And there's routinely been a Largo medic on the Belleair Bluffs engine.

They've forged friendships, attended each others' weddings and played practical jokes on each other, Langere said.

"In a way, it's like coming home," Langere said. "I grew up with these guys."

Eleven former Belleair Bluffs firefighters now starting over with Largo 10/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 5:31am]

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