SPRING HILL — There are holes in the wall of Mike Rampino's office, spots where photos used to hang. The photos left with the former occupant.
Other than some framed pictures of his wife and two children on his desk, the only outward sign that Rampino works there is the plate on the door.
It has his name.
It also says: "Chief."
Although the title has been unofficial since he took over as Spring Hill Fire Rescue's boss nine months ago, now it is real. When Chief J.J. Morrison stepped down in February after five years at the helm, Rampino assumed all of the duties — and headaches — that come with the job.
Since then, he has learned the delicate dance of balancing the taxpayers' money while keeping a wary eye out for their needs and expectations. Along with his daily duties of running four fire stations with 118 employees, Rampino has often had to withstand the contentious slings and arrows of a fire board and public audience that closely scrutinize his every decision.
Though it may seem like working in a den of lions, Rampino says that being tough under fire comes with the territory.
"I have no illusions about what is expected of this position," Rampino offered. "I am the man who is expected to look for and find the answers. The best I can do is to give the facts so that the board, and the taxpayers, can make an informed decision."
To that end, Rampino seems to have proven his worth to his bosses.
On Wednesday night, the fire board unanimously agreed to offer him a contract that will make him the first fire chief of the newly designated independent fire district.
The decision to offer Rampino the top job was an easy one, said Spring Hill fire commission chairman Leo Jacobs.
With voters overwhelmingly supporting the district's independence in the November referendum, the department will need a forward-thinking chief, he said, one who is familiar with what is needed to help steer it through the transition phase and beyond.
"I've watched him work and I'm impressed with his knowledge of what is needed to take us to the next level," Jacobs said. "There are a lot of hurdles that lie ahead and we need someone who can take us over them."
Rampino is known throughout the department for his studious, mild-mannered handling of issues both great and small.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he moved to Pasco County as a teen and was a student at Pasco-Hernando Community College when he decided to make firefighting a career.
After two years with the Port Richey Fire Department, he signed on as a firefighter/emergency medical technician with Spring Hill Fire Rescue in 1980. He is state certified as a fire officer and paramedic and is currently working toward an associate's degree in fire sciences through an online program with Columbia Southern University.
However, Rampino readily admits that his greatest education has come from doing the job for nearly half of his 45 years.
"The thing I love about it is that it's different every day," said Rampino. "As you go along you find that much of what you do is based on that knowledge and experience you've accumulated over time."
That philosophy allowed Rampino to quickly move up through the ranks. He served six years as captain of station No. 2 before being appointed as district chief. In 2004, he was asked by Chief Morrison to join the department's administration as assistant chief of operations.
With its newly won independence, the fire district faces a number of new challenges on which Rampino must lead the way.
He must oversee the establishment of human resources, finance, purchasing and other services that will no longer be provided by the county. He must also look for answers to long-pressing concerns such as whether to consolidate the district's communications department with that of the county's.
He must also look toward the future expansion of fire services to areas of Spring Hill that experts say presently are not adequately being covered by the fire district.
Rampino says that while there are no easy answers, he is encouraged that the newly seated fire board appears to be on the same page with him.
"Obviously, there is going to be a time when I see a need and they don't see a need," he said. "I'd like to think that in the end, we're all here to make a difference."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.