DUNEDIN — When Clarence "Bud" Meyer became a firefighter, extinguishing or even finding blazes took enormous coordination.
It was before cellphones, before 9-1-1, and firefighters relied on frantic residents to dash to the corner and summon them via a pull box. The box, attached to a pole, contained a lever that would set bells ringing in the fire station.
The Jaws of Life? Nah. Emergency responders used hacksaws, pry bars, chisels and brute strength to dismantle mangled vehicles.
Even the progression of technology like computers and a countywide 9-1-1 phone database, Meyer said, initially generated extra paperwork and confusion before it made life easier.
But for nearly five decades, Meyer has rolled with the punches and even helped usher in a few changes of his own.
He will retire today after 48 years in the business — 24 of them as chief of Dunedin's fire department — making him one of the longest-serving fire professionals in Pinellas County's history. "I've enjoyed what I've accomplished, the people I've met along the way," says Meyer, 67. "It's been a great career."
The story of Meyer's journey to his lifelong career is one of kismet.
He says he essentially grew up in the Gurnee, Ill., firehouse, accompanying his dad, a volunteer firefighter, on calls. Meyer, who said he "always enjoyed the challenge of handling an emergency," decided to be a firefighter, too. In 1964, the 18-year-old Seminole High graduate, whose family had moved to Florida a few years earlier, tried to kickstart his career, but rules at the time required that paid firefighters be at least 21. He settled for volunteering with the Seminole Fire Department while working other part-time jobs. But that only lasted a year.
"In 1964, if you didn't go to college or get married, you were drafted because of the Vietnam War," Meyer said. "I didn't do either, so I joined the Air Force."
Over the course of four years, Meyer worked in Montana, Guam and Thailand as part of the Air Force fire crash rescue division, extinguishing the flames of crashed aircraft as well as structure fires on base.
When he returned home, the firefighter was hired by Clearwater's fire department, where he spent nearly 20 years climbing the ranks to lieutenant, then district chief and, finally, to assistant chief of operations.
Meyer became Dunedin's fire chief on Jan. 9, 1989, and immediately started implementing changes. His biggest accomplishments include:
• Bringing Dunedin's emergency medical services, once relegated to a private contractor, back under control of the city fire department. "We're deployed and we're here, so it made more sense to bring it back into the fire service," Meyer said. As improved building codes have decreased the city's number of fire calls, Meyer says that about 80 to 85 percent of the calls Dunedin firefighter/paramedics respond to today are EMS-related.
• Collaborating with fire departments across Pinellas to provide mutual aid and share a 9-1-1 dispatch center, ensuring speedy rescue to all parts of the county.
• Persuading city commissioners in the mid 1990s to open a third firehouse, Station No. 62 on Belcher Road, to expedite service to the city's east side. The move, he said, cut fire response times from seven minutes to four and a half minutes.
• Working with the public works department to improve the city's Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating to 2, ranking Dunedin in the top 5.8 percent in Florida and the top 1.4 percent in the nation, according to Meyer. The rating, used by insurers to determine residential property insurance rates, is based on things like fire response, equipment, training and the water system's coordination with hydrants.
"I'm very sorry to lose Bud," said Rob DiSpirito, Dunedin's city manager for the past six years, adding that he was happy to have persuaded the chief to stay on a year past his initial retirement goal.
"He has really modernized the department over the years," in terms of training, mutual aid agreements with other cities and more, DiSpirito continued. "Those things didn't just happen. It took a tremendous amount of diligence and pro-activeness on the part of the chief all those years to keep us in the forefront."
After a national search, DiSpirito followed Meyer's recommendation to promote Deputy Chief Jeff Parks to the helm of Dunedin's 55-employee department. Parks, who has known Meyer for 20 of his 30 years in fire service, calls Meyer "a walking history book."
"You don't see too many chiefs last as long as he has in this system," said Parks, who served as administrative fire chief in Pasco County and chief in East Lake before coming to Dunedin five years ago. "Hopefully, we can continue on with his tradition."
This afternoon, Meyer will turn in the pager, cellphone and radio he has carried for years and embark on a quieter life in Clay County, where he and his wife, Melody, have purchased a lot near their daughter. They plan to build a home, then spend their days hiking, bicycling, traveling and "enjoying life."
It will be a bittersweet transition from a 24-hour career to which Meyer's family selflessly sacrificed his presence during birthdays, anniversaries and family dinners.
"I think it's just the people," Meyer replied when asked what he'll miss most. "You work with them so closely, especially on the emergency scenes where you've got to count on one another to do their job. It just draws you closer."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.