Captive fire chief retires after decades of public service
With about three decades of public service under his belt, with the last six years spent overseeing the island agency, Fire Chief Rich Dickerson bid farewell to the Captiva Island Fire Control District.
On Jan. 25, the chief marked his last official day on the job. At age 58, the Fort Myers resident explained that he and his wife, Kim, were finally heading into retirement permanently. They both had retired once before, but ended up jumping back in and had been employed for the last few years.
“We’d been making plans to try and retire,” Dickerson said. “It was time to pass the torch.”
On Jan. 21, the district held a retirement party for him.
“The personnel came from all the shifts, and the commissioners,” he said.
The district employs 14 positions, including a chief and deputy chief. Since taking on the role of chief in 2011, Dickerson has helped the district grow in size and expand its services to the community.
“Water rescue was one of the big ones,” he said when asked about his accomplishments.
Dickerson was able to purchase a jet ski for the district by receiving a grant.
In 2011, the agency sent two paramedics to school and hired additional ones with advanced certification. Later that year, the district put in place its Advanced Life Support program.
“We went on to build a new station,” he added.
In 2008, planning began on the $3.5 million building that has over 9,000 square feet. In April 2014, ground was broken on the station, which was built on the site where the old facility was located.
“We tore down the old one and rezoned it,” Dickerson said, adding that the rezoning enabled them to expand on the size of the station. “It’s a good location – in the center of the island.”
In July 2015, the new building opened. The date was significant in that it also marked the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Captiva Island Fire Control District. In addition, as a result of the new station, the agency could carry an improved ISO rating of a three – up from the previous four.
The district also purchased a new engine in 2011, followed by another in March.
Asked about any obstacles he faced, Dickerson cited the new building.
“The permitting process to redo the station was very extensive,” he said. “That process took a couple of years – you had to jump through every hoop.”
Dickerson also noted the issues the agency can face during tropical storms and hurricanes.
“Just the fact that the island is an island,” he said. “You’re really dealing with one way on and one way off.”
Dickerson added, however, that he would not change a thing.
“It’s a unique place and I enjoyed serving,” he said. “Love the community. They’re very passionate about their community and they’re very good people – I wouldn’t change anything.”
As for stories that will sit with him, Dickerson pointed to the hurricanes.
“And we get tropical storms – people don’t remember them,” he said. “Once we almost lost the road right there in front of ‘Tween Waters.”
The Department of Transportation has to bring out dump trucks filled with rocks. Concerned that the road would wash away during the night hours, some on the fire crew booked rooms at the hotel.
“To cover both ends of the island in case it washed away,” Dickerson said.
He noted that the road and beach have since been fixed.
Dickerson also recalled a certain S curve in the road that resulted in a few crashes. One time, a driver took down the electric pole. The road was blocked for eight hours, but the occupants did survive.
“We lost power to the entire north end of the island,” he said.
Requests from the community, like needing a vehicle or home unlocked, is another story.
“It’s a little different than your mainstream big departments,” Dickerson said. “Just unusual situations that occur sometimes.”
Asked about his retirement plans, he and his wife already have things in motion to relocate to San Luis Obispo, California. His daughters, Sarah and Katherine, live there, plus he and Kim love wineries.
“There’s 230 wineries in the county,” Dickerson said.
He also has a son, James, who is in the Navy. He is stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland.
The couple plans to do a lot of traveling throughout the United States.
“We bought an Airstream RV trailer. We’re going to see the national parks in the country and places we’ve never been,” Dickerson said. “We’re really looking forward to that.”
He is also looking forward to spending more time road cycling. Dickerson first got involved in the activity about 18 years ago when the firefighters on Sanibel began a group to ride together. Dickerson was forced to cut back on his love of road cycling in January 2015 when he diagnosed with cancer.
Dickerson underwent seven weeks of an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. He has been in remission for about three years now, noting that he recently received a clean bill of health.
With the retirement, Deputy Chief Jeff Pawul is serving as the district’s interim chief.
“All the previous chiefs have been in-house,” Dickerson said of his possible replacement. “I know they’re looking strongly at Jeff – he’s a great guy, too, and great to work with.”
In terms of advice for the next chief, he cited communication.
“Always communicate and listen to your personnel,” Dickerson said. “Let them know what’s going on and listen to their input. They’re the ones working out there in the field.”
Growing up on a cattle and tobacco farm in Kentucky, he became interested in paramedics after he wrote a paper on it for an English class. His sophomore year at Eastern Kentucky University, Dickerson applied to the school’s newly-accredited program and was among the first class to graduate from it.
He and Kim moved to Southwest Florida, later marrying in 1986.
In 1982, Dickerson began working for Lee County EMS, where he remained for five years before taking a job with the Sanibel Fire and Rescue District in 1987. From 2000 to 2007, he was the fire chief for the Sanibel Fire Rescue District. In 2007, he took a year off then re-entered the field part-time.
From 2009 to 2010, Dickerson served as the fire chief for the Longboat Key Fire Rescue.