SAFETY HARBOR — Florida was never on the radar for Josh Stefancic, who started his fire service career in the suburbs of Chicago.
But then a mentor encouraged him to think bigger, so he applied for a job at Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue. He left a blizzard in the throes of winter to visit the area and thought, "Man, this is really nice."
Now, more than a decade later, Stefancic, 38, has been hired to lead the Safety Harbor Fire Department, taking over for Chief Joe Accetta, who is retiring after 37 years with the department. The move fulfills a longtime goal for Stefancic, who was most recently fire marshal for Largo Fire Rescue.
"My dream has always been to be a fire chief," Stefancic said. "I’m so blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to do it in the community I’ve lived in for the past 10 years."
Stefancic started the job Monday. Accetta is sticking around through the end of June to show him the ropes, City Manager Matt Spoor said. The department consists of 30 employees and two fire stations.
The applicant pool started with about 50 people, which was eventually narrowed down to five finalists. It included two district chiefs from the St. Pete Beach Fire Department, the deputy chief from Dunedin Fire Rescue and a fire chief from a small suburb of Atlanta.
Stefancic was Spoor’s top choice.
"I’m just impressed with him as an individual and as a leader," Spoor said, "(and) his knowledge of fire and EMS."
His salary is $100,000 a year. Accetta, the chief since 2009, made $104,915.
Stefancic, acknowledging he "has big shoes to fill," said his first priority is to build relationships and learn more about the department.
He also wants to familiarize himself with Safety Harbor’s hurricane emergency management plan, drawing on his experience with Largo, where he was designated as the liaison representing the city at the county’s Emergency Operations Center during Hurricane Irma.
And, finally, he plans to work closely with the union representing firefighters and assess the city’s emergency medical services funding. The department is one of 18 that contracts with Pinellas County for EMS.
"I don’t operate in a silo," he said. "I want to work with everyone."
Spoor said he expects the new chief to ingrain himself in Safety Harbor’s internal culture, which he described as "a large family business," and meet the high expectations of the city’s residents.
"I’m not looking for him to recreate the wheel," Spoor said. "I’m just looking for him to take what we have and make it better."
Stefancic has a Bachelor’s of Science in Fire Protection and Safety Technology and a Master of Science in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University.
He lives in Tarpon Springs.
Times staff writer McKenna Oxenden contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.