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Hiring of Fla. fire chief with no degree sparks education debate

Some firefighters were surprised when the education requirement was waived and the new chief with no bachelor’s degree was hired

By Danny Valentine
The St. Petersburg Times

TAMPA, Fla. — A college degree is a key job requirement to lead Hillsborough County Fire & Rescue, Tampa Bay’s largest fire department.

A master’s degree is preferred, but a bachelor’s with work experience will suffice.

The department’s new chief has neither.

Chief Ron Rogers, 49, has a high school diploma and 29 years of experience with the agency.

But Hillsborough County Administrator Michael Merrill waived the education requirement and, in August, named Rogers chief, overseeing 1,075 employees and a $115 million budget at a salary of $116,000.

It has some firefighters fuming.

Though he appointed Rogers interim chief before he left, retired Hillsborough fire Chief William “Bill” Nesmith said he was surprised Rogers was even considered for the permanent job.

“If a person came to any other major department with no degree, his application would be filed in the ‘round can’ by a secretary,” Nesmith said. “Wouldn’t even get an interview.”

Rogers started working for the county in 1982 as an emergency medical technician. He advanced steadily through the ranks.

Senior emergency medical technician. Paramedic, senior paramedic, district chief for Emergency Medical Services. In 1997, Fire Rescue and medical services merged. He got a new title: battalion chief. He kept moving up. By 2006, he became assistant chief of administration, a job he held until Nesmith named him interim fire chief in January.

Although he took some college classes, Rogers said he never earned a degree.

“There’s two different career paths,” Rogers said. “I went the technical side. You don’t get degrees for that, but what you do get is prepared to do the job we do.”

He was named the state’s HazMat responder of the year in 2005 and the search and rescue responder of the year in 2002. He has led a regional search and rescue team of 210 people since 1998 and led rescuers to Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina.

Despite Rogers’ success, some firefighters are upset that Merrill ignored the education requirements for the top post.

Firefighters, from the lowest levels to the highest, must have a certain number of college courses to be eligible for advancement. The higher the position, the higher the education requirements, said Nesmith, who retired in January.

Rogers’ two predecessors in the chief’s job both had master’s degrees. His counterparts in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Largo, among others in the region, have master’s degrees. Many others have bachelor’s degrees.

Higher education is common among fire chiefs, though there is no national standard, said Douglas Cline, the president of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs.

“It honestly depends upon the municipal government, whoever that person’s direct boss is,” he said. “It’s purely up to them and what they want to put in place.”

Ann Davison, a spokeswoman with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, agreed. “There’s a saying,” she said. “‘If you’ve seen one fire department, you’ve seen one fire department.’”

Nesmith said he has kept in touch with people in the department and says a significant number take issue with Rogers’ appointment.

“I think they are dismayed a little bit because here you have the leader of the department who doesn’t meet the minimum educational requirements of that particular position when they can’t even sit for the exam if they don’t have those minimum requirements,” Nesmith said.

Longtime union president George Sucarichi said he has heard both grumbling and praise among firefighters.

“I haven’t taken a poll,” he said. “I realize that there are people that are unhappy, I realize that there are people who are happy.”

Many firefighters have long wanted one of their own to rise to the top job, he said, and Rogers is the first insider to be named chief.

The union has no official position on the appointment, Sucarichi said.

Nesmith named Rogers assistant chief of administration in 2006 even though Rogers didn’t meet the educational qualifications. He said he was the best-qualified person for that job. But the chief, he said, should meet the highest standards.

“There’s a big difference between the assistant chief and the fire chief,” he said.

Nesmith said Rogers wasn’t his first choice for interim chief, but his favored candidate was too close to mandatory retirement.

Some firefighters, Nesmith said, also think Rogers’ experience has been too narrow — rescue calls rather than fighting fires — though the vast majority of calls are medical.

Though Merrill initially said he would conduct a national search for chief, he never did.

He said Rogers proved himself as interim chief. “Ron had shown he was a good leader,” he said. He was innovative in a tough economic climate with difficult budget cuts, he added.

Merrill said he isn’t bound to the minimum requirements in the job description because the position is unclassified and not covered by civil service rules.

Merrill faced some of the same questions before he was appointed county administrator last year.

The county charter states that the administrator needs a master’s degree in public administration, management or a related field. Merrill’s master’s is in religious studies. The County Commission waived that requirement in naming him to the top job.

Rogers hopes his critics focus on his experience, not his lack of higher education.

“What it really boils down to is the quality of the work,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter what’s hanging on your wall. It matters what you do.”

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