Firefighting

Frostproof Fire Chief Jerry Riner helped to deliver a baby in 2020. Submitted photo

Frostproof Fire Department Chief Jerry Riner and Assistant Fire Department Chief Clifford Cofer both recently submitted resignation letters to Polk County Fire Rescue Chief Robert Weech.

With close to 60 years of combined PCFR experience, both quit after being recently told they could no longer work primarily as PCFR staff and part time as city of Frostproof staff based on a 2017 employment policy that was not enforced until recently.

The PCFR policy generally states that a PCFR firefighter or paramedic cannot work two jobs without permission.

Frostproof City Manager Nicole McDowell said Riner was hired as a civilian fire inspector in 2018 and that Riner was paid to primarily write fire inspection reports. Riner had PCFR permission to work both jobs at the time he was hired.

McDowell said she did not understand why PCFR staff can still have permission to be instructors at the fire academy but not as a civilian fire inspector for the city.

The title of fire chief is an honorary annual vote done by the volunteer firefighters, not a vote by the city council. The Frostproof City Council approved that vote after the fact. 

Cofer was a part time code enforcement officer for the city and had 33 years of PCFR experience at the time he resigned. Cofer was recently promoted to hold a dual role of code enforcement officer and assistant fire chief for the city.

McDowell said she took a phone call from Deputy County Manager Joe Halman around the time Weech issued a memo alerting all PCFR staff to the 2017 employment policy enforcement change several months ago. McDowell said she could not remember exactly what was said during the phone call but that it was about Chief Riner and that Halman was “unprofessional” during the call.

Frostproof Vice Mayor Austin Gravely, Frostproof City Council member Tashana True, and others took made public comments on this subject during the most recent Polk County Board of County Commissioners meeting.

“They (Polk County staff) can't tell us to shut it (Frostproof Fire Department) down, but they can make it harder to operate a volunteer-driven department,” Gravely said. “No matter the outcome, Frostproof Fire Department stays.”

Gravely believed the reason why the 2017 employment policy is suddenly now being enforced is because the County Commission funded a brand new PCFR station just outside of Frostproof city limits on Old Fort Meade Road. Construction appears nearly complete. Gravely alleged that the county commission is targeting Frostproof since no other part of the county is being affected by the recent policy enforcement change.

PCFR spokesperson Jeremy Maready denied that allegation.

“The new fire station has nothing to do with this,” Maready said. “The policy was put in place in 2017 but placed on hold due to a federal grant. Once the grant term ended in January, the policy was again enforced per the agreed upon union contract.”

Maready said the recent employment policy enforcement change appeared to only affect the Frostproof Fire Department.

In 2020, Chief Riner helped deliver a baby when he found himself in the immediate vicinity of a 911 call.

Riner was earning around $20,000 per year for doing fire inspections for the city at the time he submitted his PCFR resignation.

Initially, Riner was put on paid suspension for working both jobs against the policy directive. When Riner submitted his resignation paperwork, Weech ordered his staff to change Riner's paid suspended leave to unpaid leave.

Currently, 25 people volunteer at the Frostproof fire station. It's one of the ways that the city saves a little money while maintaining a sense of community Frostproof Vice Mayor Austin Gravely said.

Polk County Commissioner Neil Combee said he would like to review the 2017 PCFR employment policy over the coming weeks.

“The important point here is what I was told by the staff does not appear to be true based on the sequence of events,” Combee said.

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