Lakeland Fire Department’s centennial year

photography by Jason Stephens

The Lakeland Fire Department (LFD) provides much more than emergency services. From veterinary care for our four-legged family members affected by fire to scholarship and career opportunities for underprivileged students, you may be surprised at the scope of its work. Assistant Fire Chief Rick Hartzog tells us about 100 years of this service.

The Lakelander: Please tell us about yourself.

Rick Hartzog: I was born and raised in North Central Wisconsin. I relocated to Lakeland in 1979, and I truly feel at home in this great community. I began my career with the Lakeland Fire Department in 1991 as a firefighter and currently serve as the assistant chief of administration. I met my wife of 20 years, Elizabeth, right here in Lakeland. We built a home in central Lakeland and enjoy life with our furry family of dogs and cats. We also spend much of our free time enjoying the social activities Lakeland has to offer. We particularly enjoy the new restaurants emerging in our neighborhood and are really taking advantage of the current revitalization the Dixieland area is experiencing, as well as all that central Lakeland has to offer.

TL: What’s the history of the Lakeland Fire Department?

RH: Lakeland officially began as a community in 1885, and in its early days experienced several fires that would lead to the eventual organization of a fire company. Fire protection in Lakeland started as early as 1891 but became more organized in 1905 after three disastrous fires swept through and leveled several major commercial areas here. By 1909, a volunteer fire department was formally organized. The volunteer department’s numbers grew to meet the increased demand from the city’s steady growth, and by 1913 the department had purchased its first motorized vehicle, an American La France pumper.

The growth seen during those years came to fruition when the Lakeland Fire Department became a career fire department on August 1, 1916, which makes this coming August the month in which our department will celebrate its 100 years as a career department and will partake in a centennial celebration. Improvements and additions have been made to the department every decade since, with exciting additions like Technical Rescue in the 1980s, the formal creation of two separate battalions in 2004, the addition of Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) in 2007, and the addition of a new truck company in December 2014 that came with the opening of new Fire Station 7.

Like many fire departments in the nation, the demand and volume of fire versus medical calls has completely shifted, and today, of the nearly 23,000 service calls the department receives annually, a majority are medical in nature. On December 15, 2003, LFD moved from providing Basic Life Support (BLS) medical services to Advanced Life Support (ALS) medical services at some of its stations and completed the transition to ALS care for its entire service area by January 31, 2011. The department remains a nontransport department.

TL: Most citizens probably think the scope of the fire department includes only fires and emergency services, but LFD performs many more functions. Tell us about them.

RH: The City of Lakeland has grown not only in geographic size but also in the complexity and quantity of emergency calls. This has necessitated the growth of our fire department over the years to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for our services.

The department has seven stations serving approximately 100,000 people in the City of Lakeland. The department has 170 employees, of which 150 are emergency response personnel. In 2015, the department responded to nearly 23,000 service calls in its 84-square-mile response area, which includes the city limits as well as portions of unincorporated Lakeland.

The department offers a wide range of services which include heavy rescue, technical rescue, fire prevention, fire-code enforcement, fire investigation, aircraft rescue and firefighting, and in-house fleet maintenance — all in addition to a high level of fire suppression and emergency medical response for which our department has become known. In addition to emergency services we provide, our department is passionate about being an active participant in its community and consistently gives back through philanthropic efforts like our partnership with SPCA Florida, our scholarship program, and our variety of fireand life-safety community and educational programs.

TL: In addition to the risk to property and person, fire also poses a risk to other family members — our pets. How did the partnership with the SPCA come about?

RH: Human lives are our priority, but our compassion for life does not end there. We understand that pets are like family members to our citizens, and we take the responsibility of helping all living creatures, two and four legged alike, very seriously. In early 2003, through multiple encounters with pets in need on human-related emergency calls, I and several others on my team noticed there was a need for equipment that could help distressed animals. We collaborated with Lakeland’s Benson’s Canine Cookies and as a result of that partnership were able to secure animal oxygen masks that could be placed on our apparatus to help animals in need. More recently, we noticed an additional pattern in that we often helped animals on scene, but unlike humans that can be taken to the hospital, pets with medical needs (for instance, smoke inhalation) had nowhere to go. We were often left scrambling for a vet that could provide in-kind services, or firefighters with big hearts for animals, like me, who often covered the cost for care out of our own pockets.

We knew we needed a structured solution, so through interactions with SPCA Florida as part of other community events, we learned about their top-of-the-line medical facility for pets, and their desire to partner with community organizations like ours. One thing led to another, and today we have this fantastic partnership. We felt like there was mutual benefit for both organizations while ultimately being able to give back to the citizens of Lakeland. Through fund-raising efforts like our 2016 calendar (available at, we are now able to provide veterinary care to pets rescued at human emergencies if the owner cannot afford to pay for care. This has already been the case for at least three rescued pets since the partnership began. We also provide a location for SPCA Florida to provide reduced-cost and free basic veterinary services on a monthly basis through their Wellness Wagons, using our fire stations as route stops. All funds raised go directly back to helping Lakeland’s pets in need through SPCA Florida’s Guardian Fund.

TL: In 2014, LFD partnered with Polk County Public School’s Homeless Education Advocates Restoring the Hope (HEARTH) project to create F.O.C.U.S. (FireService Opportunity and Career for Underprivileged Students Scholarship) Program. Tell us about F.O.C.U.S.

RH: The Lakeland Fire Department is always striving to have a workforce that is reflective of the community it serves. While keeping that mission in mind, we became aware of the HEARTH project’s good work in 2013 after encountering a flyer for a hygiene- and school-supply drive they were sponsoring for the students they serve. We knew we could help with basic items like toothpaste and shampoo, but we wanted to be able to do more, to provide an opportunity for these students in need to become empowered and pursue a career, like firefighting, that would never leave them wanting for basic items like that. I took that point very much to heart, and through the help of our team at the department, we developed the F.O.C.U.S. scholarship program.

The F.O.C.U.S. program was created to address diversity wherein students who may have never considered working in the fire service could have an opportunity to give back through a fulfilling career. It was also an opportunity to directly assist an economically disadvantaged student [and help him or her] meet their potential, something we profoundly believe is essential to having a vibrant community like Lakeland. We have since partnered with Ridge Career Center and Polk State College to provide a student who qualifies with the chance to train to become a firefighter completely free of charge. As a result of their positive experience with our F.O.C.U.S. scholarship program, we hope that they would want to apply with our department, although they are not obligated to do so. We currently have one student, Ariel Brant, a 19-year-old female who has already successfully completed her emergency medical technician (EMT) training and is currently attending fire standards.

TL: How can the community become more engaged with the Lakeland Fire Department? And where can citizens become more informed about fire prevention and safety?

RH: We really cherish any and all opportunities that our department gets to interact with the community in nonemergency situations. Traditionally, when the public interfaces with emergency responders like our emergency responders, they are experiencing some of the most stressful moments of their lives. We have made great efforts to provide opportunities for the public to interact with us and learn more about us in more comfortable ways. Most prominent is our presence online through social media, which is a great way for people to interact with us and get a real sense of what life at the fire department is like. We are on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Periscope. We highlight the loads of training we do to maintain our exceptional level of service; we share personal and department-related awards and triumphs; we share uplifting stories of hope, fire-safety information, and much more. Social media has been a wonderful vehicle for our department to be as transparent as ever, and it allows us to form relationships with citizens in and around our community outside of the expected victim /rescuer relationship.

Additionally, our department does a fantastic job of participating in community events like church festivals, meet and greets, fire-station tours, fire- and life-safety educational programs, and so forth. Interested community members can always find more information about fire safety online at That is also where they can learn more about news, events, the personnel, and lots more happening at our department. They can even request one of our educational programs in the Contact Us section. We encourage the public to engage with us in these easy and fun ways.

TL: What fire-safety advice do you find yourself giving most often?

RH: Undoubtedly, the leading cause of structure fires in the nation and right here at home in Lakeland is unattended cooking and kitchen-related fires. In 2015 alone, 60% of the department’s approximately 130 structure fires were caused by unattended cooking. So we encourage everyone to stand by their pan, and make it a point to always supervise what they’re cooking while keeping the heat source clear of combustibles. Another big safety measure we push throughout the year is to remind everyone that working smoke alarms save lives. More times than not, when we enter a home affected by structure fires, we encounter nonworking or no smoke alarms at all. Smoke alarms help alert those inside of a structure that fire may be present and allow enough time for people to get and stay out.

Our department has free smoke alarms available to homeowners in need. We encourage them to visit us online to see if they qualify. Our focus is to prevent tragedies like a home fire before they happen, and this is just one of the many ways we do that.

TL: If someone is interested in getting involved with any of the LFD programs you’ve mentioned, what should they do?

RH: Helping with the LFD and SPCA Florida Partnership is easy, and easy on the eyes, with the purchase of our 2016 calendar. The calendar features SPCA Florida’s rescued pets and real Lakeland firefighters beautifully photographed and presented each month of the year, along with helpful information and safety tips from both organizations. The high-quality calendars are only $7 and can be purchased at All proceeds from the calendar go directly to helping animals rescued by the Lakeland Fire Department that are encountered on human emergency scenes.

For anyone interested in helping the department’s F.O.C.U.S. Scholarship Program, the best way is to directly reach out to Polk County’s HEARTH Project and make a donation of money or items that would benefit their students.

TL: Any final thoughts?

RH: I have been honored and blessed to have been able to serve the citizens of this community for over 25 years. I continue to have a passion and desire to serve our department, city, and its citizens at my very best each and every day.

I am also continually searching for unique ways to add value to how we serve our community, such as the LFD and SPCA Florida partnership as well as the F.O.C.U.S. program. My constant desire to do and be better each day is one shared by my fellow firefighters at the department, which in turn allows us to make Lakeland a great community to live in. The Lakeland Fire Department family and I are guided by our Vision; Mission; and Creed of Duty, Honor, Integrity, and Trust. We have a duty to respond to everyone’s time of need in an honorable way. We respond with honesty, compassion, and a servant’s heart which is the foundation to our integrity as a fire department. With duty, honor, and integrity we hope to earn the public’s trust and reassure them that they can always count on us in their time of need.