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Lutz's fire station has that warm feel

Published Oct. 13, 2005

In 1958, Charlie Bliss took a heady ride straight to the top of the power structure of the young Lutz Volunteer Fire Department. He was new in town and, chatting with the fire chief one day, asked what there was to do. "He said, "We're having a Fire Department meeting tonight. Why don't you come down?'

" Bliss recalled.

He did, and before the night was over, Bliss found himself elected the department's vice president. He stayed for 25 years.

A lot has changed in the decades since Bliss joined. The equipment is top of the line, the staff is highly trained, and the Fire Department is so busy it answers more calls than some professional county fire stations.

Some things, though, have remained remarkably constant. You can still go by the fire station and find out what there is to do in Lutz. You can also find out directions, your blood pressure, the lineup for Fourth of July activities and where to take newspapers for recycling.

But mostly you find a group of people whose relationship to this close-knit community goes far beyond their firefighting role.

"It's almost a family thing," said Lutz resident Anne Elizabeth Delaney, who has lived in the unincorporated North Hillsborough community since 1932. "It's everybody helping each other out. Lutz has always been that way."

"It's like our chamber of commerce," said civic activist Jan Smith, who has lived in Lutz for 15 years. "It's the one place where there is always somebody at the desk to either answer a phone or answer a question."

Carl Espenship, a manager for Johnson & Johnson by day who serves as the department's chief, oversees a group of 28 people. Their paying jobs run the gamut from truck driver to business owner to full-time firefighter. But when they leave those jobs, they often head for the fire station on Lutz-Lake Fern Road, where a half dozen or so can be found most nights doing chores, training or just socializing.

When they're not out in one of their two engines, responding to three or four calls each day, there's still plenty to keep the firefighters busy.

Fourth of July is coming up, a holiday that has become almost synonymous in Lutz with the Volunteer Fire Department. The department teams with the Lutz Civic Association and other groups to organize a celebration, which includes the annual parade through the heart of town and culminates in a barbecue chicken dinner benefit put on by the firefighters.

"The cooks are by the fire from 4 a.m. till after noon," said Doug Drape, the department's assistant chief who works as a full-time lieutenant with Pasco County Fire-Rescue.

Drape, 28, started with the Lutz volunteers when he was 16. He is one of eight volunteers who also are career firefighters and one of many more who joined the department with an eye on making firefighting a full-time job.

For Drape and many others, being a volunteer is a family affair. His sister joined shortly after he did, and their father spent 10 years as the treasurer for the board of directors that runs the Fire Department.

Capt. Lisa Filbeck, 25, is a housewife whose husband also is a volunteer firefighter and whose mother-in-law, Barbara Filbeck, answers the phones out front.

Barbara Filbeck, 60, might be the best gauge of how the town feels about its firefighters. Espenship estimates she works 80 hours a week at the station. In addition to answering phones and communicating with firefighters via citizens band radio when needed, she has other duties.

"She probably does three to four blood pressures a day, she probably gives directions to every florist and real estate agent within a 20-mile radius. She's a very, very valuable part of the department," Espenship said.

Mrs. Filbeck says people feel comfortable coming to the Fire Department.

"They know that we're here for anything they might want," she said.

But residents soon may have to make some adjustments when they pop in for help.

News that Hillsborough County is planning to build a new station for the department on Dennison Road, about a mile away from the current location, has some residents worried.

Smith describes the station's location, on Lutz-Lake Fern Road next to the library and not far from the park, as "downtown Lutz."

"As you see communities become more urbanized, you see them become less and less community-oriented. By taking the fire station out of the middle of "downtown' Lutz, you almost tell the people that this is what's happening to Lutz now," Smith said.

Mrs. Delaney said she also hopes the station doesn't move.

"I think most people really want to keep it there," she said, but added, "A lot of people out here now, they work in town and they're only out here at night. Maybe they don't have the same feeling about it."

Espenship said his staff has mixed feelings but says the new station is a good move.

For a long time, the Lutz department covered an area that stretched into Pasco County, and the Lutz-Lake Fern Road location put them right in the middle.

But now they stay in Hillsborough, and most of their calls come from the more heavily populated areas to the south.

The move "will put us more toward the center of the territory that we cover," Espenship said.

It's a territory this group knows well. Firefighters such as Lisa Filbeck, and Dave Esterly, 24, who joined only nine months ago, say they enjoy working in a community where most people know each other.

But Espenship said there can be drawbacks.

"Eighty percent of the time you run a call, someone is going to know the person in trouble. That makes it that much harder," he said. Only last month, they responded to a car accident whose victim was Drape's grandmother.

"It's a thrill to roll up on a call when you don't know anything but that it's a traffic accident. But when you see a car that's vaguely familiar to you" the feeling isn't easy to describe, Drape said. "We just handle it and deal with it later." His grandmother escaped with only a few cuts and bruises.

Even in his relatively short time in the community _ by Lutz standards _ Espenship said he has seen the area change.

"It's getting to the point where you don't know everybody anymore," he said.

While Espenship thinks the Fire Department will continue to have a close relationship with the Lutz community after it moves, he's not sure how long the Lutz community will stay close-knit.

"You get so many subdivisions and so many areas where it builds up to the point where it's not Lutz, it's Tampa," Espenship said.

But, in the face of that change, the Lutz Volunteer Fire Department provides some continuity.

Beth Nevel, who was a Lutz volunteer for 22 years and now is administrative chief for the Hillsborough County Fire Department, still likes stopping by.

"They still have the coffee pot on," Nevel said, "and I can get a cup of coffee whenever I want it."