Safety Harbor fire chief departs: ‘Take pride in the job’

Published June 19 2018
Updated June 19 2018

SAFETY HARBOR — When Fire Chief Joe Accetta started working at the Safety Harbor Fire Department, Fire Station 53 was a double wide in the middle of a field now home to Mease Countryside Hospital.

Now almost four decades of challenges and promotions later, he is retiring after spending the last 10 years as chief. His last day is June 30.

"I’ve made a difference. I’ve done my time," Accetta, 56, said from Station 53, now very much a building. "Now it’s time for the next generation."

For his city, that means Josh Stefancic, a former Largo Fire Rescue fire marshal who was hired to take Accetta’s place. The outgoing chief is spending his last few weeks training the new chief.

Accetta came to Florida on a well-trodden path. His dad, a New York state trooper, retired and moved the family from the suburbs of Long Island to the Countryside area. Accetta couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a firefighter — "Every kid wants to be a firefighter," he said, matter-of-factly — but a high school job placement exam crystallized the dream.

During his senior year at Dunedin High School, he was part of a pilot program that allowed him to shadow Clearwater Fire & Rescue firefighters. That experience instilled in him the importance of mentoring, a practice that helped him get the chief’s job and one he continued during his reign.

"(The previous fire chief) spent the time with me where I learned the ropes," Accetta said, "and then when I took over the helm, we still reinforced that mentoring program."

Accetta’s first job was at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Fire Department, then he moved on to Treasure Island Fire Rescue. All the while, he was volunteering for Safety Harbor’s fledgling fire department, which had only a handful of paid staffers at the time, compared with today’s 30.

He joined the agency full-time in 1981. Pinellas County was more rural then, he said, with orange groves and cow pastures and a two-lane, stop signs-only McMullen Booth Road.

Fire departments abided by strict jurisdictional boundaries, only responding to other cities if they were called on to do so. They also ran more fire calls than emergency medical calls. These days, the county runs on an automatic aid system and is struggling with a persistent increase in medical calls that far outweighs reports of a fire.

Accetta worked as a firefighter, then got his emergency medical technician certification. He was promoted to captain, then training chief before getting the top job in 2009.

That was amid the economic downturn, and Accetta said he’s still grappling with the staffing cuts his department underwent during that period almost a decade ago. The agency went from 35 to 30 full-time positions, although it’s likely getting one back.

"People say you do more with less," he said. "I’d say we’re surviving with less."

Accetta also witnessed a number of changes in firefighting. The chemistry and frequency of fires has shifted as building materials and standards have changed. Firefighter safety is a perennial issue, and the latest emphasis is on thoroughly cleaning bunker gear and outfitting fire stations with decontamination equipment to reduce the risk of cancer.

And, as is with every facet of American life, mass shootings have added a new layer of complexity to the job.

"I never thought I’d see the day there would be ballistic equipment on our fire trucks," he said, referring to Pinellas County’s decision years ago to buy bullet-resistant vests and helmets for firefighters.

Despite all those changes over the years, Accetta said he’d give the same advice to the firefighters of the future that he has instilled in his own:

"Take pride in the job and ownership in the job and the community you serve."

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.