Mike Tucker, the superintendent at Florida State Fire College and a former state Firefighter of the Year, is in the running to be the county’s next fire chief. County Administrator Jerry Cameron is working toward filling the post almost a year after Don Petito was edged out of the position in a negotiated settlement after 15 years on the job. Joe King had been acting fire chief since.
Cameron is wrapping up what has officially been an interim tenure at the county. He told county commissioners in February that he was planning to leave by the end of June, and has told colleagues that he’s been eager to finish his work at the county. He recently reiterated to colleagues his intention to leave at the end of June, though he’s also now being discussed as an interim manager in Palm Coast in the wake of Matt Morton’s resignation there.
The county’s hiring committee consisted of Heidi Petito and Jorge Salinas, the chiefs of staff, along with Pamela Wu, the human resources director, and Jarrod Shupe, the IT director. Tucker has already been interviewed and is being called back for another interview next week with the administrator as what appears to be a very short shortlist.
Tucker, 53, has principally been superintendent at Florida State Fire College for the past five years. He’d maintained roles either as a consultant for the Oregon-based International Association of Fire Chiefs or as an adjunct instructor at Lake Sumpter State College, where he taught for eight years. He was the fire chief at The Villages, the arch-conservative 55-plus community of over 130,000 people in northeast Sumter County. Tucker saw that fire department grow to seven fire stations, a staff of over 100 and with 101 staff responding to more than 15,000 calls.
The fire college, a division of the state fire marshal’s office, oversees and improves state standards in firefighting. The superintendent in part ensures that all state-certified training centers are in compliance with those standards.
“I have spent my public safety career working with both career and volunteer emergency services providers,” Tucker says on his LinkedIn profile. “I have been able to work within a variety of different environments with diverse workforces. I believe I am a highly motivated individual with specific skills sets in developing quality relationships, effective communications, and consensus building. I thoroughly enjoy being a public servant. My personal belief is that there is honor in serving other people and meeting their needs.”
The Florida Fire Chief’s Association named him Florida Firefighter of the Year in 2011. In 2012, the Southeastern Association of fire chiefs named him the Southeast United States Fire Chief of the Year.
The county has been stressing the need to invest significantly more in its fire services beyond the 15 additional firefighters it was able to fund through a recent three-year grant. The county is looking to raise the half-penny sales surtax to a full penny and split that revenue between the fire services and the Sheriff’s Office. The commission held a workshop on a just-completed fire rescue strategic plan on April 26. So the incoming fire chief, whoever he or she is, will be in charge of redefining the department away from what had often been referred to as an “old-school” mentality under Petito. (A cartoon Tucker posted today on his LinkedIn page posits “Some friendly advice for rookies to chief officers,” shows a firefighter with his lips zipped and an arrow pointing at them with the words, “Zip this often” while another arrow points at the firefighter’s ears with the words, “Open these more.”)
Tucker has pushed for the use of technology such as drones in fighting fires and augmented and virtual reality in training firefighters. In an interview with EaseAlert, a website that features firefighters room around the country, Tucker spoke of successfully battling through cancer. “If you’re faced with a cancer diagnosis, lean into it. Focus on the battle, set your goals, and get through it,” he told the site. “Knowing that people care about you is critical to helping you get through cancer.” He also spoke about the importance of adaptability on the job as the fire services keep changing: “It’s not just about you. It’s also about the crew you work with, the department you work for, and the community you serve.”
Tucker resigned his Villages post in 2014 weeks days after being cleared of a child abuse charge. “The 46-year-old Tucker was jailed on child abuse charges in January after Sumter County sheriff’s officials accused him of knocking a teen off a bar stool in Tucker’s Oxford home, pinning the child to the ground with his knee, beating him with a closed fist, and then dragging him outside and beating him some more, including hitting his head against a gate,” the Leesburg Daily Commercial reported in March 2014. “However, in late February, prosecutors dropped the charges after citing the child had changed his initial version of what happened in the incident, which then led officials to believe Tucker was only acting in his ‘disciplinary capacity’ and using ‘reasonable corporal punishment’ on the child.”
In his letter of resignation, he’d written: “I will leave the future to God and patiently wait with anticipation of how He will use my experience, gifts and abilities in the days ahead.” On Friday, he posted another item on his LinkedIn page apparently in response to someone’s allusion to his past: “Gotta love it when someone brings up your past to try and hurt you because they can’t do anything else to help themselves. Remember anyone who would do this “has a character flaw and its not your battle. God is in control.”