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DESPITE DISCORD, FIRE PLAN ON TRACK

Weeks of work have already gone into Largo's takeover of the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department.

Elected officials who think about meshing their fire departments with others might benefit from this advice: Be leaders, not politicians. Lay out the facts and figures. Stick to your plan.

The advice comes from Chris Arbutine, the mayor of Belleair Bluffs whose residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to shut down the town's fire department and let Largo take over.

Despite early rhetoric that the merger would flow smoothly and serve as a model for the rest of Pinellas County, the road had some bumps.

The Belleair Bluffs fire chief, who had campaigned heavily against a merger, was fired a few weeks before the election, sparking outrage from firefighters and others who accused Arbutine of misdeeds.

But Arbutine said Friday that he believes the experience, no matter how stressful at times, will serve as a model for merging departments.

"It is a good example," Arbutine said, of holding one's course in the face of the noise and anger that come with change.

"In the beginning of this situation with consolidation, it was very apparent that I was not going to be able to make everybody happy," Arbutine said. Instead, he said, "we made our decision and said this is the best decision for the people. ... It (was) time to be a leader and not a politician."

He added, "Basically, take a look at the facts and figures and take a look from the financial standpoint and the life/safety standpoint and try to remove yourself from the emotion."

After that decision is made, he said, officials need to be transparent by laying out the facts and figures and then sticking to the plan despite furor and doubts.

"It felt good at the end when it paid off," he said.

The final transfer will come Oct. 1. But Belleair Bluffs and Largo have been working on the merger since at least June. They're working out some details of the contract about Belleair Bluffs firefighters' pensions and how long Largo will retain the Belleair Bluffs fire station before building a new one not far away.

But other parts of the merger are already under way. Eleven of the 12 Belleair Bluffs firefighters are going to the Largo Fire Department. The 12th will likely apply elsewhere in the Largo city government, said Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace. Those 11 are undergoing background checks and physicals now. Wallace said he sees no reason why any of the 11 would not pass both.

Then, on Oct. 1, the 11 will have two weeks of training before being slipped into the Largo rotation.

Some may be assigned back to the same Belleair Bluffs station. It all depends on how many of Largo's firefighters apply. Union rules state that firefighters who have been with a department longer get first choice of stations, but with an officer, a driver and two paramedics needed on each of three shifts at Belleair Bluffs, Wallace said he's sure some of the firefighters will be able to return.

Wallace said he does foresee a bit of friction between the new employees and the Largo veterans, at least at first, because of things that were said during the negotiations. Wallace said some of the comments were "offensive," but it's Largo's duty to see that any friction is quickly eliminated.

As for Belleair Bluffs residents, they'll still see a fire truck with their city's name and logo on the side. They'll get the same service. The only difference is the patches on the uniforms will be different, Wallace said.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

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