Vol 7 No. 51 - September 12, 2007

West Manatee Fire & Rescue: Tales from the top

Anna Maria Island Sun Feature Story
From left, Information Technologist Vilmantas Vitas, Administrative Assistant Mary Stephens and Fire Chief Andy Price.
feature story
From left, Deputy Chief Brett Pollock, Administrative Assistant to Operations Sherry Vetter, Deputy Fire Marshal Capt. Kurt Lathrop, Fire Inspector Jim Davis and Fire Inspector Tom Soleau. Training Officer Capt. Tom Sousa is not pictured.

By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer

Most of us see our firefighters when we are in trouble – in a car accident, a fire or a similar emergency event.

We thought our readers would like to know a little about these men who come to our aid quickly and unfailingly to rescue or revive us or to save our property. They do it without fanfare because it is their job and one that they are extremely proud to perform.

There are common threads that run through the stories of the firefighters of the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District – they get immense satisfaction out of helping someone in need, they relish the camaraderie of their fellow firefighters and they have tremendous love and devotion to their families.

The first three parts of the series featured Shifts A, B and C. This final part features the administration, most of whom began as firefighters.

Fire Chief Andy Price, 46, said he dropped out of college to become a professional photographer and when he moved back home, his father, a volunteer with the Anna Maria Fire District, told him he had to become a volunteer.

"They sent me to volunteer firefighter school and I got through that and thought it was pretty neat," he recalled. "I joined Island Rescue and they sent me to EMT school and that progressed to paramedic school. I decided I wanted to be a firefighter."

He spent three years with the Sarasota County Fire Department and four years with the Longboat Key Fire Department before joining Anna Maria in 1987. He was named chief in 1991. Anna Maria merged with the West Side Fire District in 2000 to become West Manatee.

"I’m like the CEO of a company – responsible for everything," he said. "I make sure the guys have everything they need to do the job.

"The most enjoyable part of the job is to be able to talk to people that you’ve helped along the way. The reward is knowing that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life."

His biggest passion other than firefighting is the Island Community Center, where he served as coach and umpire for 15 years and now serves on the board of directors. He was the board’s chairman for 14 years. He also enjoys riding his motorcycle, fishing and collecting coins.

Price and his wife Lin, have three children, Whitney, 20; Sean, 17; and Tommy, 13.

Deputy Chief Brett Pollock, 46, who began as a volunteer with West Side Fire District in 1980 and was hired in 1983, said he never anticipated a career in the fire service.

"I went to MCC and Florida State and volunteered at West Side while I was in college," he explained. "I got my degree in real estate, but the market was sluggish, so I ended up managing my uncle’s grocery store in Anna Maria (Ernie Cagnina’s IGA). I was still volunteering with the fire district when a position came available, and I was hired."

Pollock progressed from firefighter to lieutenant to captain to battalion chief to deputy chief and also has served as training and safety officer.

"I like the reward of seeing the accomplishment once an incident is completed," he said, "and that we’ve done what we were asked to do. I’m proud to work for our fire district because I think we’ve been fiscally responsible to our district and the community."

Pollock and his wife, Vickie, have one son, Max, 9, and he enjoys boating travel, attending Florida State games and playing baseball with Max.

Capt. Kurt Lathrop, 47, the district’s deputy fire marshal, was a volunteer for five years before being hired by West Side in 1986. He progressed from firefighter to engineer to fire inspector to lieutenant/deputy fire marshal to captain/deputy fire marshal. He initiated the district’s canine program in 1990 and his current arson dog, Lucky, has been in service two years.

"You come to fall in love with helping people," he said. "We’re able to sell a product of making people safe through our fire prevention programs. I like interacting with the public."

In his spare time, Lathrop teaches inspections and investigations at MTI’s fire science program and volunteers at Southeast Guide Dogs. He enjoys family activities with his wife, Nancy, and children, Steven, 24; Daniel, 23; and Kyna, 20.

Fire Inspector Tom Soleau, 62, served with the city of Bradenton Fire Department from 1972 to 1998, retiring as fire marshal. He joined West Manatee in 1999 as fire inspector. The Florida Fire Chiefs Association named him Fire Inspector of the Year in 2005.

"As a fire inspector, my goal is to reduce the number of fires so the truck doesn’t have to come to your house or business," he explained. "If you prevent fires, you don’t have loss of property, displacement from your house and loss of life.

"My job is fire prevention, code enforcement and public relations. Every day is different with different problems to solve. I like meeting people in the community."

Soleau enjoys good music, good food and nice cars. He and his wife, Theresa have a son, Tommy, 26.

Capt. Tom Sousa, 50, is the district’s training officer. He retired from the Longboat Key Fire Department after 30 years, progressing from firefighter to lieutenant to captain to deputy chief in charge of administration. He has been with West Manatee for one year.

"I started as a part time employee for the town of Longboat Key doing maintenance," he recalled. "They asked me if I wanted a firefighting job, and I was hired under a federal program that paid my salary for a year. I went to fire, paramedic and EMT schools. I just fell into it.

"I like the excitement, the challenges and being able to solve problems. Officers have to have the ability to think on their feet and get things done quickly and safely. I enjoy helping people with unexpected issues in their lives."

Sousa enjoys sailing and spending time with his family. He and his wife, Annette, have four daughters, Haley, 17; Natalie, 15; Mariel, 14; and Olivia, 12.

Fire Inspector Jim Davis, 46, has been with West Manatee since 2000. This is a second career for Davis, who was previously in home health care.

"I was doing clinicals for an EMT class while working at Sarasota Memorial Hospital emergency room," he said. "As part of the practical part of the class, we had to ride with firefighters. I saw what they did and it appealed to me.

"I like getting out in the district and meeting people. I also respond to calls, so it’s the best of both worlds. I’m on the 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule, which I like better than the 24/48 schedule."

Davis enjoys harness racing, sailing and softball. He and his wife, Beth, have two daughters, Caitlin, 19; and Jamie, 15.

Vilmantas Vitas, 28, has been with the district for four years as its information technologist. He is in charge of computers, radios and other communications devices. He said he found the job through an ad in the newspaper.

"It’s a good job and a good crew," he said. "Everyone here is nice to work with."

Vitas enjoys car racing, basketball and sailing. He and his wife, Erika, have one child Kipras, 2, and another is expected in two months.

There are three ladies behind the scenes at the district, and they are all 39 years old.

Administrative Assistant Mary Stephens has been with the district for nearly 22 years.

"My husband, Danny, and I moved here from Ohio and his parents found us a place on the Island," she explained. "I went to work for Holmes Construction and several months later, they hired Danny for their marine division.

"I quit to have our second child and later worked cleaning houses. One of the houses I cleaned was that of Hugh Holmes Sr., who was chairman of the fire commission. He asked me if I would be interested in the job, and I interviewed and got it.

Her duties include human resources, personnel, insurance, general administration, reporting to the state and taking minutes of fire commission and emergency operations meetings.

"Public safety and the fire service is an interesting field," she said. "I have learned a lot about government and how it works. I like the people best, both the public contact and the guys. I get to help the public on a non-emergency basis."

Stephens enjoys crafts, travel, entertainment and riding motorcycles. She and Danny, who has been with the Cedar Hammock Fire District for 20 years, have two children, Crystal, 24; and Chad, 26.

Administrative Assistant to Operations Sherry (Jernigan) Vetter, has been with the district since 1988. She works with fire prevention and inspections and issues plans review letters.

"I started as a part-time data entry clerk entering fire and medical calls on an old Apple computer and became bookkeeper a few years later," she said. "After a traumatic family loss in 1998 during the consolidation of Anna Maria and West Side, I gave up the bookkeeping position and transferred to Station 4 (on 67th Street in Bradenton).

"Taking care of one deputy chief, three battalion chiefs, two fire inspectors, a deputy fire marshal and a training officer gives me the diversity and sense of accomplishment I need. I have the same feelings toward the guys as they feel toward each other. They are all my brothers, and what woman wouldn’t love having 40 brothers watching out for her?"

She enjoys scrap booking and travel with her husband, Ed. She has one son, Chris, 30, who serves as fire marshal with Myakka City.

Financial Assistant Julie Pritchard, has been with the district 10 years. She began as a receptionist and progressed to bookkeeping two years later. She works with payroll, accounts payable and budgeting.

"I had moved back to the Island and wanted a job here," she recalled. "The fire district had an opening for a receptionist and I applied for it.

“Working for the district is a great career – to come to a job that you enjoy doing and working with a great group of people. They are always there for you."

Pritchard enjoys traveling, boating and the beach. She has three children, Jill, 22; Jordan, 18; and Justin, 15.

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