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St. Pete Emeritus: Fire Chief Jim Large

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large at a Nov. 28, 2022 groundbreaking ceremony for the Firefighter's Memorial. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the title Emeritus is bestowed upon “a person retired from professional life but permitted to retain as an honorary title the rank of the last office held.” St. Pete Emeritus is a recurring series shining a light on citizens who have given much to our city and are now transitioning to a well-deserved retirement.

While most people shudder at the thought of running into – rather than away from – a fire, some people embrace the sense of reward provided by protecting their neighbors.

St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large was one of those people for 50 years. He joined the local brother and sisterhood in February 1974 and will retire March 1 feeling “complete.”

“I have no regrets,” Large said. “I’ve loved my job from day one until now – it’s never been work. Sure, there’s challenges where we don’t succeed in a save, or things like that you feel bad about.

“But those times you succeed and make a difference in somebody’s life … you can’t put a price on that kind of reward and feeling.”

The St. Petersburg Fire Department did not have paramedics or specialized teams when Large, 68, joined during former Mayor Randolph Wedding’s administration. Every member trained for “high angle” operations, water rescues and handling hazardous materials.

Large said fire medic school began in late 1974 with four “first aid wagons.” Unlike today’s ambulances, those provided oxygen and Band-aids. “You didn’t have anything else,” he said.

The department received about 5,000 calls annually in the 1970s. Large said that has ballooned to 65,000 annual calls, and 90% are for emergency medical services (EMS).

He said there were no female firefighters in 1974 and only four or five minorities. “It was predominantly a white male profession,” Large added.

“We’ve made tremendous strides over the years with diversity, becoming more representative of our community,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to hire about 70% of the (current) department. And of that, 49% have been minorities or a protected class.”

Fire Chief Jim Large (bottom right) and stationmates in 1974. Photo provided.

Large stressed how much departmental culture has changed over the past five decades. Many firefighters were World War II and Korean War veterans in the 1970s.

Large said dorms were open, and beds were about two feet apart. That caused concern, “and rightfully so,” when women began joining the force.

Fire engines had manual transmissions and lacked air conditioning. The gear was basic and included helmets made of a “plastic material,” Large said. Two crew members held onto the back of trucks when responding to emergencies.

“Riding the tailboard was kind of hairy,” Large said. “We don’t do that anymore.”

He believes the last St. Pete Fire Rescue line-of-duty death occurred in 1969. A vehicle hit a young firefighter riding the tailboard, who died a few days later.

While heavier, today’s gear offers exponentially more protection. Women populate fire stations, which provide more privacy. The trucks have air conditioning, and safety protocols continue to evolve.

“We’ve had guys who have contracted cancer and passed away shortly after retiring,” Large noted. “Even recently, we’ve had people come down with a form of cancer. The cancer presumption is that it occurred when you were working. We’ve had active members that have died off-duty, had a heart attack.”

A 1967 Ford fire truck outside of St. Petersburg Station 4 in 1981. Photo: Jim Cate, Facebook.

The modern era

Former Mayor Rick Baker named Large the city’s fire chief in 2006. One of his proudest moments came a few years later when he discovered a complex physical examination dubbed Life Scan.

The comprehensive medical assessments are expensive, and the firefighter’s union accused Large of trying to “run people off the job.” He credited the early detection procedure for significantly increasing personnel safety and welfare.

“People ask me what I want my legacy to be,” Large said. “That’s really it. I know people, who I work side by side with today, that might not be here if it hadn’t been for Life Scan.”

He also expressed pride for becoming the department’s youngest lieutenant at 24. Large became a captain and a district chief three years later.

He earned his master’s degree and hoped to serve as chief. However, Large never thought he would remain in the role until 2024.

“It’s an at-will position – you serve at the mayor’s pleasure,” he explained. “For me, it was always one day at a time. It ended up being 18 years and four mayors.”

From left: Fire Chief Jim Large; his children, Gabrielle, Natalie and Christian; his wife, Missy; and former Mayor Rick Baker at Large’s appointment ceremony Feb. 9, 2006. Photo provided.

Large stressed the importance of evolving as a person. While core values remain, he called leadership “a work in progress.” He told every mayor that he would fill the role to his best abilities but was not a politician.

He said new generations of firefighters possess varying ideals, and his job is to merge everyone into a cohesive team. Large said he has also worked to surround himself with “mission-driven,” “positive” and “innovative” people who are “way smarter than me.”

“Our situation is so much different than so many professions,” Large added. “You live together. It’s your family away from your family. A person’s got to have the right personality and character to fit in a situation like that.”

He noted that hiring and later promoting people also “brings a lot of pride.” He never mentioned his 2022 Florida Fire Chief of the Year Award.

Large called his retirement bittersweet. He pledged to offer – but not force – his continued support.

“I have too many people here that I care about to just disappear,” he said. “But that care will strictly be on a personal level.”

Large said Mayor Ken Welch did not request his help in the national search for a replacement. Large said there are a couple of internal candidates, and he believes the role will garner interest nationwide.

Large added that he would assist if asked. He noted the importance of appointing someone who can navigate cultural shifts and further integrate EMS into the department.

“The one thing I want to say is ‘thank you’ to the City of St. Petersburg – and I mean the community – for their support for 50 years,” Large said. “I’ve always felt supported. I’ve always felt the men and women of the department were embraced by the community.

“It’s just meant so much.”

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mark A Parker

    February 17, 2024at10:35 pm

    “For me, it was always one day at a time. It ended up being 18 years and four mayors.”

  2. Scott K Wagman

    Scott K Wagman

    February 17, 2024at4:52 pm

    Congratulations to Chief Large in his retirement.
    He constructed the modern department that the citizens of St. Petersburg now benefit from.
    Serving 4 mayors with such growth over so many years is bound to have some controversial moments, but his legacy is secure.
    Well done, Chief.

  3. Avatar

    Steve Allen

    February 17, 2024at2:46 pm

    Wtf? Didn’t this guy leave in disgrace?

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