More MS news articles for Dec 2001

New fire chief is in the hot seat

Published December 10, 2001

LAND O'LAKES -- Debbie Fahlman spent decades dashing into burning buildings and prying accident victims from their twisted automobiles.

She has spent the past year relying on a cane and a walker as multiple sclerosis gradually robbed her body of its former grace under pressure.

Though the disease is forcing her to retire this month as a battalion chief with Pasco County Fire Rescue, Fahlman has found a welcome as the new chief of the Land O'Lakes Volunteer Fire Department.

Fahlman considers her stint at Land O'Lakes as "short-term." Her goal is to upgrade the department's preparedness and training while keeping herself in the firefighting field.

"I want to stay active. As long as I can keep my mind active, I'll stay out of a wheelchair longer," the 49-year-old New York native said.

In taking the Land O'Lakes job, Fahlman placed herself smack dab in the middle of what could be contentious times for the department.

It's no secret that Pasco firefighters would like to merge with the volunteers by January 2003, a move that requires passage of a 1.54-mill fire property tax within the volunteer fire district.

Land O'Lakes residents would stop paying the yearly $30 donation to the volunteers. Instead, a person whose home is assessed at $125,000, minus the $25,000 homeowners exemption, would pay a fire tax of $154.

Pasco Fire Rescue Chief Anthony Lopinto said the tax would raise an estimated $1-million, which he said represents a break-even amount for the county.

Lopinto is promising volunteers what he considers a sweetheart of a deal: The county would let volunteers keep their station on Hale Road and be the first responders to accidents in central Land O'Lakes.

Pasco would also pay the volunteers' insurance premiums, maintain their gear and give them a first crack at landing paid firefighting jobs.

Lopinto fears the volunteers, with 48 people on their roster, will struggle to keep up with the population growth of the community.

Then there's the issue of fairness: Pasco professionals already handle medical emergency calls in Land O'Lakes and receive no fire taxes to offset the expense.

What Lopinto fears is a "shock to the system," perhaps a house that burns down for lack of available volunteers.

"I know it would eventually happen that they couldn't keep up with the pace and we'll have to come in and provide services," Lopinto said.

Despite her loyalty to her old boss -- some have speculated she's been planted by Lopinto to ease the merger -- Fahlman said she has strived to stand above the fray.

Resistance to the merger remains strong in the department. In fact, some firefighters view Fahlman's hiring as a way to make the department more independent.

"I have no preference either way," Fahlman said of the merger. "They just can't do a merger without the volunteers agreeing to let go of the department."

Fahlman's health problems began three years ago when she got, and subsequently overcame, breast cancer. Despite the therapy that robbed her of her hair, Fahlman continued on the job.

But in November of last year, after noticing a drop in coordination, a doctor diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. On inactive status the past year, Fahlman will officially retire from the county Dec. 31.

The volunteer fire department's board of directors initially hired Fahlman to be assistant chief under Mike Burns, who took over when former Chief Tom Mock was relieved earlier this year.

Fahlman said she was promoted over Burns in late November after the old chief proved "not adept at administration." As long as her health requires frequent doctor's visits, Fahlman expects to spend only a few hours each week at the firehouse.

"I will stay as long as they'll have me -- or they merge," she said.

© St. Petersburg Times