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Hillsborough fire chief talks turning around the department and making time for choir practice

Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones came out of retirement last year. His top priority was to balance the budget.
Published Aug. 12, 2016

In April 2015, Hillsborough County lured former Tampa fire Chief Dennis Jones out of retirement to take over its embattled Fire Rescue Department. At the time, Hillsborough's department faced budget overruns and a controversy over union pay, among other issues, and Jones was brought in to right the ship. Jones, 59, recently sat down with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Contorno to talk about the changes he's made and what it's like to come back five years after retiring from the city.

What did you see as the top priority number to turn the department around?

The biggest thing was the budget. We were $1 million in the red. I started April 27 so by the end of the fiscal year we made some drastic cost cutting measures. We only use overtime to staff emergency staff vehicles. They were using it for a lot of other things previously.

I was approaching it as a business, and I figured if they got to know me and respect me, then we would become friends later on, but I wanted them to see me as a serious leader that was more concerned about getting the ship right.

It was kind of obvious what the big problems were. We needed to make our primary objective putting out fires and probably more significantly, saving lives. Eighty-five percent of our calls are medical. So we needed to make sure we had that covered.

In the last year, the department has seen more than 60 people retire and the largest graduating class in history. What are the opportunities and challenges that kind of turnover creates?

The good side is I get a fresh start, people that buy in, they're eager to be part of the direction, the leadership and moving the department forward. The hurdle is you have to make sure they're competent. And we have an extremely competent training division. We started a lot of practical training, live fire training. We have a live fire prop and we set it on fire and they get to go into it. Any time you're burning stuff, it's a good day for firefighters.

How important when you're recruiting is it to make sure you're making inroads into minority communities and making sure the department reflects the community?

With almost every department in the country, they're under utilized in females and they're under utilized in blacks. The pool of qualified candidates (applying) is slim, so it's very difficult to increase your numbers.

In Tampa, we doubled the number of African-American employees during my five years there. We did it through aggressive recruitment. We'd send people to job fairs, universities, colleges, we'd go to all the graduations for the basic fire fighter classes.

We're implementing those same process here. For the first time, I sent two of our black officers, a captain and a battalion chief, to Little Rock, Ark., to the black professional firefighters conference, and it was all about leadership, employee development and recruitment and retention.

It's very important that the department as much as possible mirror the community, but it takes a while to develop. We're not to the point we want to be yet, but it's not for a lack of trying.

Why is that important?

We want to reflect the community so they feel like we're a part of it. The fire stations don't belong to us, they belong to you. If you're not reaching every part of the community, you're not really being fair to the citizens. I don't want to discriminate or eliminate any particular group. If you want to be in the fire service, we want you to be in the fire service.

What is the biggest issue facing the fire department?

Hillsborough County is the 19th or 20th fastest-growing county in the entire country. In the last three years our calls went from the 80,000s to the 90,000s to this last year we ran just an eyelash away from 100,000. We're doing that essentially with the same workforce which makes the strain harder and it makes it more difficult to get to you in the time frame that you need. So the biggest challenge is as the country grows we need to have stations and qualified personnel in those stations to respond to the community.

We do that by putting paramedics on a fire truck. We have 42 fire trucks in the county and 28 ambulances. So it's almost definite you're going to get a fire truck before an ambulance gets there. That's fine because that fire truck has a paramedic and all the equipment that you need.

We've looked at squads as a pilot program: two people in a truck basically that run triage for medical care. We're looking at a pilot program with an ambulance that can move throughout the county and see if it affects response times. We're looking at zone cars where you can put them in for partial days during peak load times. I would say in the next decade we probably need 25 new fire stations and that's not an exaggeration.

How do you innovate in a department where, if you try new approaches and it doesn't work, it can affect people's health and homes?

This is a fact of life: Nobody wants a fire station in their neighborhood when you're building a new one because of the noise and whatever else. But once you build it, they do not want it to leave.

If you're going to do a pilot program or a new concept, you should plus-up the staffing and vehicles rather than try to relocate. Because it doesn't matter how few calls you run, it only takes that one. The reality is once you've given someone a level of service, it's very difficult to relocate it.

How has it been, coming out of retirement?

When the county asked me to come here to be the chief, I talked to my wife. I came home and shared with her the story, and she broke down and started crying. She said, "What an opportunity. You've got to do this." Even now I get a little emotional, when I go home and say, "I don't know how long I'm going to work," and she says, "They asked you to come here for a reason, you still got work to do, you need to finish what they asked you to do."

You're a choir director for Riverhills Church of God. Has returning to work cut into that?

It does make it difficult because anything you do you want to bring fresh stuff but even there I have a support staff around me. My entire family is involved in the music and they help pick up the load. And we do have a very good music pastor and if I have to be out of town, he'll cover for me and then I'll just get up there on Sunday and wave my arms. I find time to balance it out. The things you love to do you find time to do.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com.

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