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Fire chief's successor has Pinellas Park roots

(ran West edition)

This city has a tradition of promoting from within, but City Manager Mike Gustafson passed over a longtime deputy to hire Pinellas Park's next fire chief.

Douglas Albert Lewis, Polk County's chief since July 2002, will begin work on Nov. 1 and earn about $89,190 a year. For the first few weeks, he'll work alongside retiring Chief Ken Cramer, whose last day is Dec. 31.

"He did great through the whole process," Gustafson said Tuesday of Lewis, who grew up in Pinellas Park. "He was very creative, out of the box. . . . That was what impressed me."

Lewis, 48, had never fully moved to Polk County. His wife, Darlene, an administrative assistant with the city of St. Petersburg, continued to live in Kenneth City. Lewis went to Polk during the week, returning to Pinellas most Wednesdays and weekends. The Pinellas Park job will allow him to end that commute.

"It's a chance for me to return to my hometown," Lewis said.

But leaving Polk will be difficult, he said. The county has been hit hard this hurricane season.

While dealing with the devastation left by Charley, Lewis' department sustained another blow: Firefighter/EMT Ben Lang died when the ambulance in which he was riding struck a tree.

It's "one of the most trying times I've ever gone through, losing a firefighter," Lewis said.

As firefighters grieved, Hurricane Frances struck, damaging some fire stations.

"It's been a trying time," Lewis said. Pinellas Park's offer was "one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make. . . . I will probably always have second thoughts about it because I've made such friends here.'

Lewis will be joining a department with deep roots. Cramer has been chief for 26 years. He had long groomed a replacement, Deputy Chief Steve McCarthy, but Gustafson had other ideas.

"I was looking for a new culture change in the administration," Gustafson said. The city manager was reluctant to explain what he meant, but said it involved some "oopses" that have occurred recently in the Pinellas Park Fire Department.

Late last year, Pinellas Park firefighter David Alan Veler was accused of bashing another firefighter in the head with a softball bat during a party. In August, Frederick Rankin Ferguson, a lieutenant in the department, was accused of drunken driving.

"I think we can do a better job in possibly helping the employee before it gets to that point," Gustafson said.

But the city manager conceded that the incidents concerning drugs and alcohol are not limited to the Pinellas Park Fire Department. In the past few weeks, two low-level employees in the city's public works department were picked up for DUI. One of those employees has resigned.

"We've caught up to society in (these issues)," Gustafson said. "It's more than just fire. That's why I say we've caught up to society."

Lewis said he does not foresee any immediate changes, but prefers talking to employees and seeing what needs to be done. For the most part, he said, the Pinellas Park department is professional and well-run. No major changes may be needed, although tweaking might be necessary, he said.

Lewis' family moved to Pinellas Park in the mid 1950s. He attended Pinellas Park Elementary and Junior High schools.

He attended what was then St. Petersburg Junior College from 1980 to 1996 for continuing education courses in fire science. He received a bachelor's degree in 2000 in public leadership and organizational studies from Eckerd College. He received a certification as a public manager from Florida State University in August.

He worked for the St. Petersburg fire department from 1975 to July 2002, retiring as the rescue division chief before he accepted the job as Polk County chief. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve from 1990-1998.

Lewis is married and has two children. The eldest, Michael, 21, attends Florida Community College in Jacksonville. His daughter, Brittney, 19, is well-known to local soccer fans. A straight-A student, she was named the Times' Scholar Athlete of the Year in 2003. She received a soccer/academic scholarship to Marquette University in Milwaukee, where she is currently studying.

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