SEBRING — Battalion Chief Brett Hogan with Highlands County Fire Rescue has received the 2020 Thomas Yatabe Certificate of Outstanding Achievement from the Florida State Emergency Response Commission.
The award is given once a year to an individual who displays outstanding achievement, accomplishment or superior participation in the agency’s hazardous materials planning program.
It’s not the first time for recognition for Hogan, who was named to the South Florida State College President’s List in 2010 for superior grade point average, and has followed up that in his career in several ways.
Currently, he serves as leader of the HCFR technical rescue team, which would be called upon to help with search and rescue/recovery in incidents such as the high-rise condo collapse in Sunrise.
During disasters, Hogan is tasked with handling logistics during disasters, and recently gained praise from LaTosha Reiss, manager of Emergency Management, for his help in organizing the Point of Distribution for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Earlier this year, in March, he was part of an effort to provide American Heart Association-certified Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) training which focuses on respiratory issues: “The main cause of pediatric issues,” Hogan said.
He’s also been heavily involved in extrication training, which has also had officials like him practicing their public information officer “on-scene” training, when explaining the training to local press.
AVON PARK — Brandon Ball has gone to work for the FBI, in a manner of speaking. He’s teaching public safety bomb technicians at the Bureau’s Hazardous Devices School at Redland Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.
Ball served in the Division of the State Fire Marshal, now merged with the Division of Insurance Fraud, now called the “Division of Investigative and Forensic Services — Bureau of Fire, Arson, and Explosive Investigations” (DIFS-DFAEI or “DIFS”), as a major over all the southern half of Florida, including Highlands County.
Ball, also certified as a public safety bomb tech, retired in April 2020. Two days later, thanks to contacts he’d made, he accepted a job with the Hazardous Devices School.
There are only two such schools in the country. The FBI school, a joint venture of the FBI and U.S. Army up until September 2017, and the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal (NAVSCOLEOD), a Navy-managed command, jointly staffed by Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel. In the U.S., NAVSCOL trains military bomb techs; FBI trains the rest.
Right now, there are approximately 3,000 certified public safety bomb techs in the country, Ball said. Training bomb techs is a matter near and dear to his heart, as much as the gold firefighter’s axe pendant he wears around his neck, a gift from his mother when graduated the fire academy in 1989, after starting at age 17.
Two other items on that gold chain are the “baby rings” from the births of his two daughters, now 25 and 20.
“They’re always close to my heart,” Ball said.
Also close to his heart is the frontline fight against terrorism. In 2010, while still working for the Division of the Florida State Fire Marshal, Brandon Ball had an opportunity to visit Ground Zero.
“That really cemented my dedication to the explosives field,” Ball said.
About his students, who need two to four years to get “spun up” on the material, Ball said, “People who want to do it are remarkably committed to learning the task.”
The task requires a lot of science, and the average law enforcement officer gets zero training on how to do a fire investigation, which is why fire departments and law enforcement depend on the fire marshal’s offices and bomb techs.
Student bomb techs are called “Baby Bombers,” Ball said, who have to learn how to assess a threat and perform a “render safe procedure,” making sure to get people out of the estimated blast, fragmentation and debris zones.
The Eric Rudolph case, early in Ball’s career, demonstrated to him the need for bomb techs and their expertise, which helped identify Rudolph as responsible for the Centennial Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Rudolph’s bomb killed Alice Hawthorne, married to John Hawthorne of Lake Placid, Florida, and injured 111 others. A journalist also died, Ball said, of a heart attack while running to the scene.
At the Hazardous Devices School, there is a mock-up of a city street with a gas/repair station. In one of the bays sits Rudolph’s pickup truck, confiscated upon his arrest. Five feet from it, Ball has placed a plant in Hawthorne’s honor and memory.
It was a rookie who found and arrested Rudolph, who was rummaging through a dumpster for food at the time. It was experienced officers in Sebring — then-Cpl. Viviane Buck, now a sergeant, and Officer Daniel Cordero — who responded to reports of a suspicious subject walking out the woods near Newsom Eye Clinic, who had crossed U.S. 27 and was walking northbound toward Denny’s. When officers tried to stop him, he placed his backpack on the ground and continued to walk. In the bag, officers found three PVC-pipe bombs.
Incidents like that, or when a bomb has to be rendered safe, happen more often throughout the U.S. than most people realize, Ball said. Over the last few years, bomb squads and bomb techs have provided better support to law enforcement, to make a difficult situation less dangerous for all involved.
Every three years, bomb techs have to go back to Huntsville and do a 40-hour recertification class, Ball said. It was his frequent returns that helped him build connections with staff at the school, which turns 50 years old this year — just like him. It was run jointly by the FBI and U.S. Army until September 2017. Since then, the FBI has run it.
Ball and his wife, Carla, haven’t “moved” from Avon Park, he said. He has an apartment up in Huntsville and she and he have spent his days off traveling northern Alabama and parts of Tennessee and Georgia.
“We’ve traveled more in the last year and a half than we have in the last 28,” Ball said.
Still, if the time away for this first year were to be too much of a burden on his home life, he’s prepared to quit and come back. She works for Human Resources with the School Board of Highlands County. One of their daughters, Shelby, is a teacher at Avon Park High School. The other, Courtney, is a senior at the University of Florida studying agriculture. Ball’s father and grandfather both served as fire chiefs for the city of Avon Park.
His father’s advice was “go away, wherever that is,” for five years to get experience. After that, his father said, “if you want to come home, then come home.”
Ball worked as a firefighter-paramedic with Hardee County Fire Rescue from 1991 to 1998 and with Sarasota County Fire from 1998 to 2000, working with the Wauchula Police Department to get law enforcement investigator certification from 1995 to 2000, with the goal of getting hired by the State Fire Marshal’s office, which he did, from 2000 to 2020.
In the years since, he has given seminars and classes at education facilities, such as Saint Leo University and South Florida State College, before taking a job with the FBI.
“I’m exactly where God wants me to be,” Ball said, adding that he’s “honored and blessed” to have taken part in providing training to people from all over the U.S.
Where is his next place, he doesn’t know. The lack of a local bomb squad, except for state squads based out of Tampa or Polk County, and the 30 bomb squads headquartered south of Lake Okeechobee, tells him there’s a lot more work to do.
AVON PARK — The City Council will consider a resolution for the preliminary fire assessment and set the proposed millage rate for the first public hearing on the 2021-22 budget at today’s meeting at 6 p.m.
After no increase in the fire assessment last year for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, Monday’s Council agenda includes a resolution with a 25% increase in the annual residential rate from $112 to $140.
After briefly reviewing the agenda packet, Deputy Mayor Jim Barnard said it looks like the City is looking into increasing the fire assessment, but that is just the opening proposal the Council will review.
In September 2019, the City Council approved a 40% increase in the fire assessment raising the annual residential fee from $80 to $112 while setting the following rates: commercial at 6 cents per square foot; industrial/warehouse at 1 cent per square foot; and governmental/institutional at 2.6 cents per square foot.
The proposed resolution on today’s Council meeting agenda shows an increase with the following rates: residential $140, commercial 7.4 cents per square foot, industrial/warehouse 1.1 cents per square foot and government/institutional 2.8 cents per square foot.
Barnard said the property taxes will have to be raised because the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office is increasing the amount of funding the City pays for law enforcement services.
At a November 2020 City Council meeting, Sheriff Paul Blackman offered a presentation on his department’s cost for service to the City of Avon Park, stating he needed to allocate more deputies, from 19 to 27. This would change the City’s payment from about $1.4 million to $2.5 million per year.
“The rest of the county is subsidizing law enforcement inside the city limits of Avon Park to a large degree, and that is not fair to those taxpayers who live outside the city,” he said.
In September, the City Council increased the property tax rate from .3 mills to 1.0 mills for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
At that time, then finance director Jim Zimolzak said a tax rate of 1.35 mills was needed as the “break-even point” for the 2020-21 budget. That was about two months before Blackman informed the Council that Avon Park needed to pay more for law enforcement services.
SEBRING — Most of the City Council Members believe a former bank building on South Ridgewood Drive would be a good spot to have a civic center as proposed by the Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency.
CRA Board Chairman David Leidel asked the City Council recently if it had time to think about the old Barnett Bank Building becoming a cultural arts center/civic center.
At some point the CRA will want to make a decision on whether or not to purchase that building, he said.
A design firm is working on a plan to redevelop the City property on Lake Jackson. The preliminary designs call for more open space and removal of the Jack Stroup Civic Center and could also displace the Highlands Art League and the Sebring Historical Society.
The CRA is exploring purchasing the former bank building on South Ridgewood Drive and having the art league, historical society and racing hall of fame on the first floor and utilize the second floor as a civic center.
Councilman Mark Stewart said there needs to be a location for the entities in the area that is being renovated.
Council President Curt Ivy said the City should have a meeting center and if it is not in the plan for the waterfront then that might be a good place for it.
Councilman Charlie Lowrance noted he is the Council liaison to the CRA and told them his opinion.
“As you all know, I used to own that building and its a 32,000 square-foot building and using it as a market or flea market — you can get away with that without a lot of renovation,” he said.
Renovating it into a cultural arts center/government use, he estimates it would cost $3 million to $4 million.
“It’s a good rock solid building,” Lowrance said. “It’s concrete; it went through Hurricane Irma and got one broken window. But, the interior of it, such as the wiring and plumbing, would have to be redone if you are going to use it for a large center.”
“I don’t want to pay for that, I know the City really can’t afford it,” he said. “I am sure the CRA wants to afford it.”
That is three times the size of the City Hall. The idea is great, but it is going to be expensive, Lowrance said.
Stewart said it would be a long-term project.
Councilman Tom Dettman said the current City Hall is 10,000 square feet, so at the former Barnett building one floor could be City Hall easily with expansion and the other floor would be the civic center, all under one roof for $2 million or $3 million.
“There are a lot of moving parts here,” he said. “I am glad we are talking about, but I like the location.”
He couldn’t imagine stepping back in time and not having a civic center, Dettman said.
Lowrance said he wants the waterfront to be redone, but the civic center where it is at “isn’t a bad deal to me.”
Stewart said said he likes the civic center; it is a functional building with a beautiful view, but it also blocks the view from the entire waterfront district; it’s in the way. In his mind that is why there is blight beyond that and crime because of things that can’t be seen.
“So, I feel like it needs to go with a replacement,” he said.
Council decided to discuss it further, along with the possible City Hall move to the Wachovia building on North Ridgewood Drive, at Council’s Aug. 17 meeting when Lenard Carlisle will be back.