NEW PORT RICHEY — After nearly 34 years saving lives and fighting fires in 24-hour shifts, Duncan Hitchcock has a new job: band booster.
"I got to take the jazz band to Mittye P. Locke (Elementary School)," bragged Hitchcock, whose daughter, Rachael, plays saxophone and serves as drum major for the Gulf High School band. "I got to go to a band competition."
Hitchcock, 58, recently retired from Pasco County Fire Rescue, where he had been one of the first paramedics hired for the county's fledgling emergency services system.
He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming rescue chief in 2007. During his career, he held many responsibilities, including overseeing the department's advanced life support program, serving as an information technology representative and the county's liaison to area hospitals, as well as the public information officer.
Despite all that, he downplays his success, saying "I've probably been one of the luckiest people in my career."
Luck had little to do with it, say his bosses, who credit Hitchcock with helping bring more professionalism to the department.
"Duncan got into the ambulance business when the ambulances belonged to funeral homes and turned right to go to the hospital if the patient was alive or turned left to go to the funeral home if they were dead," said Dan Johnson, assistant county administrator who joined the county staff just a couple of weeks ahead of Hitchcock. "He served this county and our citizens well and with distinction."
Hitchcock, who grew up in St. Petersburg, decided to become a paramedic the summer before college. He was on 1st Avenue N, and through the back of an ambulance window he saw someone giving CPR.
He was a student in the first paramedic program at St. Petersburg Junior College in 1974.
A buddy told him Pasco County was starting up a professional rescue program. He was eager to apply.
"In the early 70s, it was mostly basic life support," he said. "Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto (of the show Emergency) had just come on TV," he recalled. Life in Pasco was also much simpler. "There was no mall," Hitchcock recalled. "The intersection of Massachusetts (Avenue) and Congress (Street) was a four-way stop."
The ambulances were simpler, too.
"There were days you'd have to change vehicles four and five times a shift because they kept breaking down," he said. New county administrator John Gallagher understood the need for updated equipment and bought a fleet of vans and developed an ambulance replacement schedule.
"I really came to respect the man," said Hitchcock, who once playfully gifted Gallagher with a stocking full of coal during some tense contract negotiations. "I know where his heart is and commitment is."
When Hitchcock joined the county, fire and rescue were separate agencies. But as better building codes meant less work for fire departments, many merged with rescue services to improve efficiency.
When Pasco combined its departments in the early 1980s, Hitchcock was part of the process.
"They said you didn't have to cross-train, but if you look to advance in the department, you have to cross-train," he said. "At first we moaned and groaned but decided we could take it and we could do it. We went through it and made a good time of it."
In the end, he said, it greatly improved service to residents.
"We'd get on the scene and start resuscitating patients before an ambulance could get there," he said.
Hitchcock said he was glad he could help people when they were most vulnerable. Sometimes it meant saving someone from the brink of death. Other times, it meant noticing when an elderly person called 911 three times in a month because they couldn't remember to take their pills.
"Maybe it's noticing the house is dirty and they need a social worker," he said. "It's taking that extra step."
Hitchcock's bosses said he has helped save lives even during his off hours. A teen collapsed during a recent event, and Hitchcock's quick action saved him, Johnson said.
Does Hitchcock ever hear from those he helps? Sometimes.
He recalled a grisly car accident involving a teenage couple at State Road 52 and Bear Creek Road. The boy was dead. The girl suffered serious injuries to her face.
To her keep her from losing consciousness, Hitchcock talked. Everything would be okay, he said.
Three years later, Hitchcock and a friend were sitting in a restaurant when a young woman walked in. He looked at her face and noticed a faint scar.
She heard them talking and stopped.
"I know you from somewhere," she told Hitchcock.
Hitchcock said he knew she'd been in an accident. He said he was one of the people there that night.
"She said, 'I know the voice.' It comes from some place in my mind.' "
Not wanting to take credit, Hitchcock modestly left it at that.
"I just feel good helping a patient return to being a productive member of society," he said.
He retired because the state's deferred retirement incentives made it financially possible for him to retire at such a young age. The need for a new roof on his house made the decision even easier. He'll use part of his money to replace it as well as remodel the bathrooms and install new flooring. He and his wife, Terri, a retired Pasco sheriff's sergeant whom he first met at a car accident, want to travel to Scotland, home of their ancestors. But they plan to retire here.
"We looked at going to North Carolina like everybody else," he said. "But this is where we raised our kids," he said. "This is our home."