Polk Fire Rescue interim chief makes costly list of recommendations to county

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Polk Fire Rescue's new interim chief just gave county commissioners a long and costly wish list,

Chief Rob Weech told commissioners Tuesday it would cost $8.9 million to pay for all the improvements to the fire department that an outside consulting firm is recommending.

The firm made two dozen recommendations after 76-year-old Loretta Pickard died in a house fire in Lakeland last November.

She was on the phone with 911 for twenty minutes waiting for help to save her. Meanwhile, firefighters were outside battling the blaze.

In the wake of the fire and the controversy surrounding it, Chief Tony Stravino and the captain in charge of the scene, James Williams retired.

Weech said training for new officers tops his priority list.

"I think that will give us the ability to take our new and inexperienced officers and get them on the same level as some of our old promoted officers," Weech said.

After the fire, Williams was criticized for instructing crews to concentrate on fighting the fire, rather than going in to try to save Pickard. He was also sanctioned for posting video of the fire as it was burning on social media.

Weech also wants to develop mentoring program to team up newcomers with experienced firefighters. Down the road, he would like to build a training center.

Weech reported that policies have been changed internally so there is better communication between dispatch, firefighters at a scene and in the surrounding area.

When all was said and done, commissioners said they could partially fund the proposed improvements.

"We're committed to this," said Commission Chairman George Lindsey, "But it is beyond resolving every issue in one year. It's not possible."

Lindsey says this year, the county can invest $3.5 million in improvements. In the following years, the county can spend more money on the remaining areas.

Lindsey says the lion's share of the money s will come from the fire fee, which will probably increase about $15 this year.