BRADENTON – It was a day of sadness and celebration Oct. 17 as West Manatee Fire Rescue’s staff said goodbye to retiring Chief Tom Sousa and welcomed new Chief Ben Rigney in a combined retirement and change of command ceremony held at Station 1.
As Sousa passed the ceremonial pike to Rigney, officially passing command of the fire district to his successor, several well-wishers stepped up to the podium to honor both men, including former WMFR Chief Andy Price, WMFR board Chair David Bishop and East Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Lee Whitehurst.
Two of the most poignant moments of the evening were when Rigney’s grandfather, Hugh Holmes, pinned the chief’s badge on his grandson and when, after Sousa gave his final comments as chief, a ceremonial radio call went out announcing his official retirement from the district.
Price, as the guest speaker for the event, said that he was honored to be included in the ceremony, having known both Sousa and Rigney as well as worked with them for many years. Price retired from WMFR in May 2015.
Once the change of command was completed, Bishop kicked off Sousa’s retirement celebration by thanking Sousa for his 13 years of service to WMFR and recognizing the accomplishments of his 43-year career in the fire service. He ended his comments with a top five list of options for Sousa to explore in his retirement: travel, become an Uber driver, paragliding, become a school crossing guard and, number one, become a professional bicycle helmet model. Sousa’s likeness can be seen modeling a helmet on the side of WMFR’s bicycle rodeo trailer.
Bishop presented Sousa with a plaque and a golden fire axe on behalf of the district and board recognizing his service to WMFR. Whitehurst, speaking on behalf of the local fire chief’s association, presented Sousa with a certificate and token of appreciation for his work.
Whitehurst said that there are two colors used to recognize those retiring from the fire service based on their years in the service. Because of Sousa’s many years of service, Whitehurst said a white ribbon was added to the colors as a third tier for 30 years or more of service.
Sousa also was presented with a folded American flag.
The dual ceremony ended with Sousa’s final comments, thanking his family for their years of support, and a radio announcement, officially marking his retirement from the fire service. A reception was held afterward with food provided by Mission BBQ.