INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – After a 42-year career in firefighting, much of it in Pinellas County, Chief Robert Polk of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District is retiring.
Polk’s last day on the job is July 4 after which he will move to Columbia, South Carolina, where he will take up a position with the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Polk has been chief at Pinellas Suncoast for the past 3 1/2 years.
Prior to that he worked with the state fire marshal in Columbia and now he’s returning for a very good reason.
“My family never relocated when I came down here and we’ve been maintaining a long distance relationship ever since,” he said. “It came time to make a decision and it rested with faith and family. You can imagine the miles I’ve travelled going back and forth all this time.”
Polk, 60, says this move is sort of a slow ending to his career.
“I will be working but I’ll be winding down,” he said. “It isn’t an issue of leaving this job to go to another job.”
In fact he says his job as Suncoast chief was a special one for him.
“It has been very fulfilling and very rewarding,” he said. “Every place I’ve ever been has been educational. Here I have worked with a great group of people and we’ve made significant strides moving forward and keeping up with the dynamics of this business.”
At least one man says keeping up with those dynamics can be credited to Chief Polk.
Father Bob Wagenseil served as chaplain of the fire district for the entire time Polk was chief. Wagenseil retired from the fire service when he retired as pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church last year.
“I would say through his patience and his great vision and good sense of humor have continued to keep us on top of the game as a professional and well-trained organization,” he said. “Not only that but morale has never been higher and that is very important.”
Wagenseil said Polk has a gift of being able to help people grow.
“We all build on the work of our predecessors,” he said. “He is leaving behind a good foundation for future growth. I can tell you he will be missed by every member of the department.”
Indian Shores Mayor Jim Lawrence, whose community is served by the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District, agreed that Polk would be missed.
“He brought a real flavor of professionalism to the District,” he said. “I’m sorry to see him go. Not only did I like him personally, but he was very professional.”
Lawrence said his community has been satisfied with the fire protection they get from Polk’s department. He says he speaks from first-hand knowledge.
“Response times are always much better than the county average,” he said. “I had a personal experience a couple of months ago. I came down with pneumonia and collapsed.
My wife called 911 and within minutes they were at my door. They were very efficient and very professional.”
Polk said he can’t take all the credit for the department’s activities.
“The success rests with the entire team. This is a very excellent fire service, which provides a high level of service in a very cost-effective manner. The people in the District should be proud of it.”
Polk arrived as chief after a career that saw him and his family move about the country.
“I began my career in St. Petersburg,” he said. “Several years later I moved to Moline, Illinois, to be fire chief, then after four years I moved to Columbia to work for the state fire marshal. I stayed there for four years; then I operated my own fire safety business. I did that for seven years then I came to the beach.”
To hear him tell it, his job on the beach was not difficult because the department was in good shape when he took over.
“Any new set of eyes going into anything is going to see things that others didn’t,” he said. “Everybody has a different take on how to run an organization. I made some minor modifications, some adjustments and tweaks. Once I got into my comfort zone and understood the history of the organization it all came together very nicely. The folks that were and are there were a big part of making it happen.”
The fire district covers from Indian Shores to Sand Key on the beach and inland the Oakhurst area of Seminole.
There are two fire stations, one in Indian Rocks Beach and the other in Oakhurst, and there is a total staff of 38 people, 30 of whom are firefighters.
From time to time there has been discussion that perhaps the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District should be merged with a neighboring fire department such as Seminole or Largo.
Polk says that is mostly just talk.
“The fire district organization is oftentimes a misunderstood concept,” he said. “Special districts are established by state law, there is no local form of government, including the county that can take it away or end it.”
Polk said that while some elected officials made some noise that it should be done, the real attack is against special districts.
“Special districts are the most efficient form of government,” he said. “That is because they only do one thing, the accountability is totally transparent. Any attempt to do away with a special district would be a very difficult thing to accomplish.”
All of that will become someone else’s concern as Polk moves to Columbia, South Carolina to be with his family.
He and his wife Kathryn have been married for 24 years and they have three adult children: a daughter who is married with two children, another daughter who is attending the University of South Carolina studying to be a pharmacist and a son who is a firefighter in Charleston, South Carolina.
It isn’t difficult to understand why Polk wants to be near his family and why he wants to move.
The other reason is his faith, which he believes is guiding him through this next step in his life.
“Faith is very important to me. I try to the best of my ability to let it guide me in everything,” he said. “I’m always looking for that inner spirit in my personal and professional life, it is very important.”