The St. Petersburg official defends his department's diversity and work structure.
Published Jan. 25, 2014|Updated Jan. 27, 2014

St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue rarely came under fire during the administrations led by former Mayors Rick Baker and Bill Foster.

That changed with the November election.

Besides calling for a new fire chief, a subcommittee of Mayor Rick Kriseman's transition team suggested taxpayers could save money by shifting highly paid firefighters from desk work back to fire stations. The group also criticized the agency for not having more minorities in its senior ranks.

In his first public comments to the report, fire Chief Jim Large scoffed at the suggestion that he needs to be replaced.

"The recommendation stated it was based on the swap time controversy," Large wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "The mayor has received a detailed explanation of swap time, the relative laws, industry practices and policies and level of administrative oversight. It will be up to him to determine what recommendations he will or will not agree with."

The Times reported last month that for decades firefighters could swap shifts with co-workers with little oversight by either trading hours or paying their colleagues cash.

Large, a 39-year agency veteran, defended the shift trades in the months leading up to the Times' story. He tightened the practice days after the Dec. 15 story was published.

The St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, called Local 747, supports Large.

The subcommittee report "falls short due to incorrect information and somewhat biased information provided" to the committee, according to a union statement.

"Information found within the report is either wrong or has already been addressed in several of the cases," the statement said. "Therefore, we find no real value or relevance in the report."

A union official declined further questions.

Subcommittee members included former Assistant Police Chief Cedric Gordon; former fire union president Will Newton (brother of council member Wengay Newton); CONA president Lisa Wheeler-Brown; NAACP president Manuel Sykes; and attorney Johnny Bardine.

Kriseman will get a final report that combines all nine subcommittees that analyzed different city functions. Then he'll act.

"He's begun reading some of them," said Ben Kirby, Kriseman's spokesman. "He's waiting for the final report. We don't know when that is."

The idea of moving high-paid first responders from behind desks isn't new.

In belt-tightening times, the desk jobs are the first ones critics assail as unnecessary in police and fire departments.

The move could help prevent "browning out" equipment - idling vehicles and apparatus for several hours at a time or an entire day - instead of paying overtime to cover firefighters on vacation or others who call in sick.

Large disagreed.

"Sworn members were never taken from the stations for these positions so there are none to return to," he said. "To create a place in the stations for these sworn personnel and replace their positions with civilians would be a significant and unnecessary expense."

Currently, 13 firefighters are assigned to headquarters for administrative work.

Another nine work there on light-duty status for medical reasons. Some are near the end of their careers and enrolled in the state's deferred retirement program.

Citing Florida law, Large declined to provide details on how long the firefighters have worked light duty at headquarters. But he said none have exceeded the two years allowed.

Large also said he has diversity in the ranks.

He pointed to one female in his senior staff and a Hispanic and an African-American who were promoted to senior jobs but have since retired.

"Of the 114 people I have hired, 39 percent are minorities," Large said. "I have made 39 promotions of which 28 percent are minorities. The department strives to be representative of the community at all levels."

Mark Puente can be reached at or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @markpuente.