Pawul takes on role as new fire chief
Recently-promoted Fire Chief Jeff Pawul always knew he wanted to work in the industry, but he considers himself lucky to get to call the Captiva Island Fire Control District his home base.
At its Feb. 12 meeting, the district’s board voted 3-0 to approve Pawul as the new head of the department. As deputy chief, he had been serving as interim chief following former Fire Chief Rich Dickerson’s announcement of retirement. Dickerson’s last official day on the job was Jan. 25.
Pawul’s employee agreement for the new position went into effect on Feb. 1.
Commissioners Robert Brace, C.W. Kilgore and Sherrill Sims voted to approve a four-year contract with Pawul with an annual salary of $125,000, while retaining the benefits shared by the district.
“Honestly, I’m just truly blessed and honored to be selected by the commissioners for this role,” he said. “If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I would have thought I’d be in this position one day, I would have said no. There’s something to be said about being in the right place at the right time.”
Originally from Brunswick, Ohio, Pawul earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Cumberlands in Kentucky. When his now-wife, Kelly, finished college, they moved to Southwest Florida. Having known each other since about age 5, they grew up in the same suburb.
“It was a high school sweethearts kind of thing,” Pawul said.
He explained that both of their families had longtime ties to Fort Myers.
“We both had known and been familiar with the area,” he said.
She got a job in her field working as a pharmacist, and Pawul joined Pulte Homes as a customer relations manager. Despite having an interest in firefighting, he had college scholarships and did not want to waste them. Upon obtaining his degree, Pawul sought a job path where he could apply it.
“But this was kind of always the field I wanted to go into,” he said of firefighting.
Growing up, Pawul was drawn to the big fire trucks like most youth. It was only with age that he learned about the impact firefighters can have in a stranger’s life, beyond battling house fires.
“You see how much of a difference we can make, as far as helping people and being there for them. You see how much of a difference in people’s lives you can make,” he said. “It’s pretty special.”
When the construction industry began to stumble, Pawul and his wife had saved up enough that he could stop working and pursue his desired field. He attended and graduated from the Fort Myers Fire Academy, as well as attended and completed EMT training at what was once Edison State College.
In 2008, Pawul joined the Captiva Island Fire Control District as a firefighter-EMT.
“I got lucky, as I like to say. I couldn’t think of a better place to serve,” he said, noting the district’s smaller size when compared to other agencies in the region. “You’re not just a number out here, and the support we receive back from the community is just tremendous.”
A couple years later, Pawul was promoted to lieutenant, followed by deputy chief.
“The group of firefighters that I have now to work with, they’re just like me. They care so much about the community and keeping it safe,” he said. “The guys I work with are just so devoted that they make my job easy. It’s more of a family atmosphere out here, which is how we like it.”
The district staffs 14 full-time positions, of which two are currently vacant – one because of Pawul’s promotion. The district also has three volunteer firefighter positions, occupied by island residents.
“We’re still considered a combination department,” he said of the mix.
As for the future, Pawul views continuing to meet the community’s needs as a top priority.
“Meeting the health and safety needs of our residents and visitors. We have a lot of tourists that come out here,” he said. “Providing those services to the best of our ability is very high on our agenda.”
Constantly changing fire tactics and emergency medicine will require continuous training.
“We always have to be changing and adapting our role,” Pawul said.
One big project that the district has on the horizon is the acquisition of its first-ever fire and rescue boat. In October, it received a grant from the West Coast Inland Water District for the purchase.
“It’s been a tool that we’ve kind of been relying on other agencies for,” he said.
Pawul explained that emergencies out on the water, outside of the spectrum of the U.S. Coast Guard, requires a call to nearby agencies for assistance, such as Sanibel, Pine Island and Iona-McGregor.
“They don’t engage in active firefighting,” he said of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Ten percent of the district’s calls are water-related, compared to about half of that a few years ago.
“Our call volume on water-related calls has gone up,” Pawul said.
The boat will enable the district to serve at a higher capacity.
“That’s our immediate project,” he said, noting that the addition will require new and different training for staff on usage and techniques. “It’s almost a whole other division or aspect for our department.”
The boat is estimated to cost about $200,000, including equipment and accessories.
The district anticipates getting it within the next three to six months.
Pawul, 36, lives in Fort Myers with his wife and daughters, Samantha, 7, and Brooklyn, 6.