If you’ve ever been in an accident, had an emergency on the beach or attended a local fundraiser, then you’ve probably met one of the 30 volunteers who make up the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department.
Joint fire chiefs Melissa Larsen and Nick Vacco take community involvement as seriously as they do fighting fires.
“Each of the previous fire chiefs had their own vision,” said Larsen, an eight-year volunteer. “Our vision is ‘community.’”
With two stations on Cape San Blas, one near Salinas Park and the other outside T.H. Stone St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, the department covers 50-60 miles of beach each day and utilizes a combination of beach rescue, aerial pumper, brush trucks, all-terrain vehicles and jet skis to serve the Cape, Simmons Bayou, Jones Homestead, Money Bayou and Indian Pass.
Members are able to respond to local emergencies in 3-5 minutes and are able to fight fires and perform other first response duties such as CPR.
Vacco, a three-year member, reported that 97 percent of his firefighters are FF1 certified, which calls for over 365 hours of training in firefighting, first response and equipment operation.
In addition to tackling flames, water emergencies and the occasional stingray barb, the department’s members spent hours a day maintaining a presence and patrolling the beaches where they hand out flyers and give away hats and glow sticks while building a rapport with visitors to the area.
Vacco estimated that there are 1,500-1,600 visitors to the Cape each week during the summer months. That’s more people than full time residents living in Port St. Joe.
“In some cases, that means 1,600 people who have never seen the water before,” said Vacco.
The joint chiefs see their role in accident prevention as being just as important as responding to an accident scene.
“We try to be there for the people who are on vacation,” added Larsen. “Their friends are all back at home and in the event of emergency, we can be their support group.”
Lots of tourists return to the area year after year and Vacco and Larsen do their best to build relationships with the visitors, even if it’s only for a few short days during the summer.
Additionally, members of the fire department are heavily involved with community efforts that include food banks, Toys for Tots, creating and distributing Easter baskets, turtle patrol, Halloween events and numerous fundraisers with the Coastal Community Association and Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf.
The department’s biggest fundraiser, the annual Memorial Day Butt Roast is a time of food and fun that allows the department to raise funds to put back into the community.
Auxiliary members also work the event each year to help make it a success.
In firefighting, any day without fires is a good day, and the department uses any free time to escort turtles and gators across the road, watch for rip tides, answer visitor’s questions and will soon launch a flag system on the Cape’s beaches to alert guests to current water conditions.
Volunteers are regularly invited to visit area schools to discuss fire prevention and show students the ever-popular fire trucks.
“We go from one extreme to the other,” said Vacco. “We’re part of the community, and the community is our number one priority.”
The chiefs keep an open-door policy at the stations and invite tourists and residents to visit if they need directions, emergency assistance or have simply lost a pet in the area, as dogs tend to make the station a temporary home while their owners are located.
Even though all members of the fire department are volunteers, it’s not uncommon for Larsen and Vacco to spend 50-60 hours a week at the station.
Trucks must be maintained and washed regularly to prevent sand and salt from corroding their fleet and firefighting gear are checked regularly to ensure everything is in working order at a moment’s notice.
Larsen handles all administrative duties as well which include the daunting task of ordering proper supplies.
The department shares a budget with the rest of the stations in the county, all of which are volunteer-driven, and because of limited funds, smart shopping becomes necessity.
It takes Larsen time to find the best price on needed supplies, but in the end, she’s able to save hundreds of dollars on their gear.
Vacco said that to train a new firefighter, they’re looking at roughly $3,000 and once the crewmember is trained across all response disciplines they will have spent nearly $10,000 on training classes and equipment for each firefighter.
The South Gulf Coast Fire Department relies on equipment donations from other departments along with donations from the private sector.
“If a paid fire department came in and looked at our equipment and saw what we had, they’d say ‘Wow!’” said Vacco. “And we’re operating on roughly the cost of a new car.”
Spending 60 hours per week fighting fires, organizing and operating fundraisers and handling all of the paperwork is no easy feat, though Larsen revealed the department’s secret to success.
“We have fun,” she said. “It’s a big family and I think that’s pretty awesome.”
Larsen first met that “family” while vacationing to the area from Gainesville. During one of her many trips, her son John was bitten by a shark while swimming off the Cape and members of the department were the first responders.
She said that her son received amazing treatment and they were treated like family.
Once they moved to Gulf County full time, her son was the first to join the department as a volunteer. In addition to her son, Larsen’s husband and daughter are also members.
“It’s unlike any place I’ve ever lived,” said Larsen. “It’s an unbelievable community to live in.”
Vacco and his wife had visited the area numerous times over the course of seven years. His wife had always wanted to live on the beach and after making great friends with some families on the Cape, they made the jump to full time residents.
He joined the department when he saw how involved the volunteers were with the community.
“They were much more than just here to put out fires,” he recalled.
Seeing Larsen and Vacco interact is similar to watching a brother and sister pick on one another, but you know that deep down, there’s nothing but respect between them.
The department’s fun and lighthearted attitude led the members to shoot a notorious photo calendar as a fundraiser last year. To prove that they took fighting fires infinitely more seriously than they did themselves, the calendar features volunteer members scantily clad, using perfectly-placed equipment to cover up their…well, you get the idea.
That same sense of humor got them noticed over the summer by a producer from New York City who was interested in filming the department and pitching it to television networks as a reality television show. The producer had planned to spend a day with the joint chiefs and their crew, but had so much fun that he stayed for a week and filmed a “sizzle reel” that he would pitch to several TV stations.
It’s too soon to know whether or not the show will be make television history, but it won’t keep the department from serving the community as they always have.
“People are calling you on their worst day,” said Larsen. “They’re thankful for your help and I can’t think of anything more rewarding.”
“If you don’t like what you’re doing, it shows,” added Vacco. “We’re all volunteers. You either like it, or you don’t have to work here.”
The department is always on the hunt for new blood and currently has members as young as 20 all the way up to those in their 70s. Anyone interested in joining can call or visit the station, but Vacco warned that despite the fun factor, fighting fires isn’t a walk in the park.
“You can’t just come in and jump into a fire,” he said. “There’s training—and it’s hard.”
Members are assigned pagers and in the event of emergency, the Gulf County Sheriff’s Department sends out a call. Volunteers use their own transportation and show up if they’re available or are in the area.
“We’ve never not had someone one show up to an emergency,” said Larsen. “I can’t remember ever being short-handed.”
The chiefs applauded their fellow volunteer firefighters for their commitment to the role. Because the department is a not-for-profit organization, members have to pay their own expenses and they never know just what they’ll see when they arrive on scene as a first responder.
“Our primary goal is firefighter safety,” said Larsen. “During a fire, the job is to get people out of the house. Everything else can be replaced.”
“The dedication is beyond what people could understand,” said Vacco.
This year the department has had 120 calls and expects to have close to 180 by the end of the year. Of those calls, 1-2 will be structure fires, 10-12 will be wildfires and the rest will be assisting Emergency Medical Services as first responders for beach and bay rescues.
For more information, the station can be reached at 227-7338.