Fla. city mourns loss of beloved retired fire chief
Former Chief Robert Richardson spent 30 years in the fire service and was the youngest professional fire chief in the state of Florida after 10 years on the job
By Katie Landeck
The News Herald
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — At every Panama City Fire station, the same plaque proudly hangs: "Home of Florida's Best Trained Firefighters."
It's not an official ranking — there's no real way to measure that — rather, it's the legacy of former fire chief Robert Richardson.
"He had them put up," said Assistant Fire Chief Gary Swearingen. "He firmly believed in competitiveness and pushing you to be the best you can be."
Richardson — who died at the age of 79 on Saturday — spent 30 years in the fire service in Panama City. Born in Millville, he spent his whole career in his hometown, climbing through the ranks so quickly that within 10 years of starting he became the youngest professional fire chief of a paid department in the state of Florida.
He retired in 1994 after 20 years as chief, but the ethos he instilled is at the core of the department and the department's leaders, many of whom Richardson hired.
"I think about him every day because of that sign," said training chief Scott Flitcraft. "That's a lot to live up to."
Since he was a young man learning to hunt in the Bay County wilds, Flitcraft has been following Richardson's footsteps. Best friends with Richardson's son Bobby, the fire chief — who loved the woods — would take the boys to hunt, fish and camp out. He told the scariest stories around the campfire, Flitcraft said, remembering one tale of "hatchet man" that made him sleep with his shotgun.
It was Richardson who encouraged Flitcraft to become a firefighter — though the road was rocky at first.
"I was 18. I was still a baby and a little rough around the edges. He hired me in November in '83. I was suspended - the first time - about five months later. He suspended me," Flitcraft said. "Give or take, three years after that he fired me, and then rehired me immediately. ... I was lucky."
That was the thing about Richardson — he could be harsh when needed. When you did something wrong, he was going to correct you, department members said. But, when it was over, it was over. He gave second chances. He built people back up. He wanted his employees to grow.
And while it took time, Flitcraft did grow up and became one of the leaders of the department, eventually taking over training, the very thing Richardson had held so near and dear.
"He loved the men," said Mary Lou Hodson, the Fire Prevention Support Specialist who worked with Richardson for many years. "He stood behind them all the time."
In the years since he retired, Richardson enjoyed his retirement with his large family, pretty much only coming to the fire station for retirement parties. He had his same sharp, sarcastic humor.
Like many firefighters, Richardson eventually found himself facing a difficult battle with cancer — an occupational hazard for many in the field. With fire training and safety still a top concern for him, he participated in a study to try to make it better for the next generation of firefighters. The study seemed to bring out the competitive streak he was known for.
"He outlived them all," Flitcraft said. "He set a record. He was pretty proud of it too."
On Saturday though, his health took a turn and the Panama City Fire Department was called to his home to load him into ambulance. While it had been over 20 years since he retired, all of the firefighters who responded knew who he was, Swearingen said.
"We had a crew there, and they said he was his jovial self as they loaded him up," Swearingen said. "It was Panama City that was coming to help him. That meant a lot to him."
Visitation will be held on Friday, January 11, 2019 at 9:00 a.m. followed by a memorial service at 11:00 a.m. Visitation and services will be held at the First Baptist Church, 610 Grace Avenue in Panama City. A procession to Evergreen Memorial Gardens, 3733 North Highway 231 in Panama City will follow the services.
Copyright 2019 The News Herald