WMFR board members plan for the future

WMFR board members plan for the future
Battalion Chief Ben Rigney sits alongside retiring Chief Tom Sousa. After an internal search, Rigney emerged as the only candidate to possibly replace Sousa as fire chief. - Kristin Swain | Sun

BRADENTON – West Manatee Fire Rescue commissioners had a full agenda for their February board meeting.

The group met Feb. 19 at the administration building to discuss the future of the fire district.

Retirement and succession

With Chief Tom Sousa retiring from the district in October, the search is on for a new fire chief. Opening the position up first to internal candidates, only one emerged – Battalion Chief Ben Rigney.

Commissioner Larry Jennis, who’s heading the panel to find qualified candidates, said that he was very impressed with Rigney and his credentials, advising his fellow board members to allow him to move forward in the selection process. The next hurdle is for Rigney to have an interview with each board member.

“He’s exceptionally well qualified to be fire chief,” Jennis said, adding that when he spoke to the district’s firefighters Rigney also received glowing recommendations.

After the individual interviews, commissioners will decide whether or not to open the position up to outside candidates.

Administration merger

In light of Sousa’s retirement and the imminent sale of the district’s administration building to the Oasis Middle School, Commissioner George Harris suggested his fellow commissioners consider a different option – merging administration services with nearby Southern Manatee Fire Rescue. If this happened, the firefighters, stations and board would all remain West Manatee Fire Rescue but the administrative staff would be merged with Southern Manatee’s and that district’s chief would also serve as WMFR’s chief.

Because the two fire districts do not share a border, they could not completely merge into one district without Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue also agreeing to merge.

The idea received mixed reviews from commissioners with Jennis and Commissioner Al Robinson both agreeing that since WMFR has a small administrative staff that works well they don’t see a benefit or a need to the merger. Commissioners voted 3 to 2, with Jennis and Robinson dissenting, to allow Harris to enter into exploratory talks with Southern Manatee.

Cortez Fire Station

Harris said he’d received word from Cortezian Mary Fulford Green that the old Cortez Fire Station is vacant. He added that Green asked if the district would be interested in helping to create a fire services museum at the site. Commissioner David Bishop asked Sousa and Harris to do more research on the project, potentially reaching out to other county fire districts to see if there is any interest in creating a museum, and bring the information back to the March meeting.

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