Meet Largo’s finalists for fire chief

Published June 6 2018

LARGO — The search for a new fire chief is nearing the end this week as city leaders meet and interview three finalists.

The new top firefighter will fill the role left open by former Chief Shelby Willis, who left in March to take a job in Utah. The job pays about $96,000 to $134,400, depending on experience, and oversees the county’s third largest fire department with about 150 employees and a $21.8 million budget.

The city paid $14,750 to the consulting firm The Mercer Group to recruit for the job and narrow down the roughly 60 applicants. There were originally five finalists, but two have withdrawn.

The Tampa Bay Times reached out to the remaining finalists.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Largo Fire Chief Shelby Willis departs for job in Utah.

Michael Cassano, 55, has been the deputy chief of operations for Pasco County Fire Rescue since November 2016. He spent much of his career in Broward County, first at the city of Dania Beach, then at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office Department of Fire Rescue after the two agencies merged in 2011.

Cassano said he applied for the job because it would give him a chance to lead a department after holding the No. 2 spot at other departments. He said he was drawn to Largo’s quality of service to residents, specifically the city’s strategic plan and community conversation series in which city officials discuss the city’s future with residents.

"I’d really like to align myself with that kind of an organization," he said.

Cassano said his breadth of experience would make him a good fit for the job. He has helped educate communities on fire prevention as well as health and safety risk reduction through programs such as fall prevention. He has also made firefighter safety a priority in his current role, he said, ensuring that new fire stations will include decontamination zones to reduce the risk of cancer, he said.

One of the biggest challenges facing Largo Fire Rescue, and Pinellas County as a whole, is a relentless rise in emergency medical services calls. Largo is one of 18 fire departments that contracts with the county for EMS. During his time in Broward, Cassano said he gained experience managing contracts with several cities and working with EMS committees to improve call response.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Reasons elusive as Pinellas EMS demand skyrockets.

He lives in Pasco County with his wife, Carol, and has a 16-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son.

Jason Dougherty, 42, has worked for about 20 years at several fire departments and is currently the deputy chief of operations for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. Born and raised in Lakeland, he decided to become a firefighter during an internship at St. Joseph’s Hospital when he was a health education student at the University of Florida.

Dougherty said Largo’s values of integrity, collaboration, passion and creativity are in line with the type of organization he wants to lead.

"If I was going to say the four characteristics I want from a group of people I’m working with," he said, "those would absolutely be the four I would look at."

His current job and two previous leadership roles — deputy chief of administration for Hillsborough and training division chief for Tampa Fire Rescue — have given him experience managing a diverse workforce.

When it comes to the issue of EMS call volume, Dougherty said both Hillsborough and Tampa have seen a similar issue and that, in his current role, he’s helping come up with solutions. He said he has some ideas around risk reduction and community outreach he believes could help if he’s picked as chief but didn’t want to go into detail ahead of the interview.

Dougherty lives in Mulberry with his wife, Candice, and three sons.

Joseph Pennino, 36, has spent 15 years — almost all of his career — at Largo Fire Rescue. With his promotion to interim chief, he has worked in every rank in the department, he said.

"My MO was to try to get involved with anything I could get involved with," Pennino said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Largo promotes Joseph Pennino to deputy fire chief.

That includes deployment for hurricanes Charlie and Dennis and working on several specialized teams. He also helped to develop budgets, an ongoing five-year staffing expansion plan and construction of the new Fire Station 43 in Belleair Bluffs, he said. The city has three fire station rebuilds planned in the next decade.

In the quest to handle EMS call volume, Pennino said he believes the keys will be tackling the root causes and continuing to work with the county to reduce calls from the Pinellas County Jail and the neighboring homeless shelter, Pinellas Safe Harbor.

"I don’t think at this point we’ll be able to acquire funds and resources to keep up with call growth," he said.

He added that if he was picked as chief, he would work closely with the local union to ensure there’s buy-in from members on new policies and projects from the beginning.

Pennino lives in Clearwater with his wife, Meredith.

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