The Early Years
The Estero Fire District had its beginnings in 1964. Until that time, Lee County contracted with the City of Ft. Myers to provide fire protection to the Estero area. If a fire broke out, the call went up to Ft. Myers and an engine was sent south on two-lane US 41 to Estero, a trip of nearly 20 miles. Needless to say, this provided very little protection for the residents of Estero. Any structure would likely burn to the ground in the time it took the truck to arrive.
In the early 1960’s, the community began the process of setting up a volunteer Fire Department in Estero. In 1964, the Estero Precinct 12 Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 was created. George Horne was appointed the first Fire Chief, a position he held for 18 years.
In those early days, firefighting equipment was hard to come by. When a new fire engine or other equipment was needed, the community would host bake sales to help raise the money. The volunteer department had no authority to tax the citizens for the service they provided. The company operated on local contributions and donations from established fire districts.
The Growth Begins
The face of Southwest Florida began to change in the 70’s and 80’s, as the post-World War II generation realized that you don’t have to shovel sunshine. Developments started popping up faster than melaleuca trees. I-75 was completed in the early 80s and Southwest Florida International Airport opened for business in 1983.
Growth in the Estero area was slower than other parts of Lee County, but growth was happening. In 1976, the State of Florida divided Lee County into official Fire Districts, including the Estero Fire Protection and Rescue Service District, a 56 square mile slice of Southern Lee County extending from Estero Bay to Collier County. For the first time, the Estero volunteer fire department would receive an annual allocation of a portion of property taxes. A board of directors was elected from the voting public to oversee the operations of the now ‘official’ organization.
Nonetheless, the department remained a strictly volunteer organization until 1982. That was the year that George Horne retired as Chief and the Board hired its first paid employee, Fire Chief Joe Linzalone. For three years he remained the only paid employee, but in January of 1985, three volunteer firefighters were hired to full-time positions. Two of the three young men, Dave Ott and Brent Althouse, still work for the District. “There were only 3 paid firefighters when I was hired”, recalls Lt. Althouse, “so sometimes you would go out and fight fires or work accident scenes by yourself, until the volunteers arrived to help. It wasn’t a very good way to do things, but it was all that we had.”
Lt. Dave Ott remembers having fewer calls, but more jobs to do. Firefighters had to be mechanics and handymen, too. If something broke, they had to fix it. There was no one else around and the budget was pretty tight.
Slow growth continued and by the mid-1990’s Estero Fire and Rescue employed 11 full-time firefighters, a training officer, a secretary and a new Fire Chief. Although the entire operation still worked out of a single building on US41, the building had expanded from a 2-bay garage to a 5-bay complex, housing two fire engines, a brush truck and a few support vehicles.
But there was trouble brewing in the day-to-day operations of Estero Fire and Rescue. Jimmy Wright, the new Fire Chief, was having relationship issues with the union firefighters. Still, the firefighters were shocked one evening in January, 1997, when they came back from a training exercise and discovered they had all been fired! Chief Wright had convinced the Board to bring in Wackenhut, a private company, to staff Estero Fire and Rescue, on the grounds that it would save the District money.
The incident became front page news in Southwest Florida. Firefighters came from around the state to picket in front of the fire station. Board members were charged with violations of the Sunshine Law, and several resigned. Tragedy struck on Tuesday, July 15th, 1997 when a Wackenhut firefighter was killed fighting a brush fire. Several weeks later, the Fire Chief was arrested for stealing the picket signs of the protesting union firefighters. Estero Fire and Rescue had reached a low point in its 23 year existence.
The old adage says that it is often darkest just before the dawn, and so it was with Estero Fire and Rescue. In August, 1997, the remaining 3 board members, Tim Higgins, Connie Kelley and Josephine Bigelow, voted to dismiss Wackenhut and reinstate the firefighters. Josephine Bigelow resigned from the Board at that time and Dick Schweers was appointed to the Board by Governor Chiles a few days later, just to keep a quorum. In October, Larry Westin and Gayle Sassano were added to fill the Board. The five commissioners had a daunting task. They needed to find a new Fire Chief, deal with a sizeable debt and rebuild a department in shambles. San Carlos Fire Chief Nat Ippolito and Assistant Chief Ray Delo oversaw the day-to-day operations of the District for 6 months, while the Board looked for solutions.
Back on Track in the New Millenium
In January, 1998, the Board decided to hire Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield from the Bayshore Fire District in North Lee County. Chief Merrifield accepted the position, despite the fact that Estero could offer little more in compensation than he was already making. He knew the District had great potential, and the community was on the verge of a transformation.
FGCU was in its first year of existence and several large residential communities were in the planning stages. The population of Estero, which had been slowly growing for the last few decades, was on the verge of an explosion. The demands on the District were going to increase tremendously and steps had to be taken to bring Estero Fire and Rescue into the 21st century.
Early on, the Chief and the Board recognized the need to bring advanced life support (ALS) capabilities to the District and improve the infrastructure. The lone station on US 41 was too far from new developments to provide timely service. New fire stations would have to be constructed, and the staff would need to grow, not only in numbers, but also in abilities. ‘Estero Fire and Rescue’ was renamed ‘Estero Fire Rescue’; a minor change in name signifying a major change in direction.
In late 1999, the District set out to be a certified ALS provider, a process that usually takes 2 to 3 years to accomplish. In September of 2000, just 9 months later, Estero Fire Rescue received its ALS license and began providing advance life support to the citizens of Estero. At the same time, the search for property for new fire stations was underway.
Over the next 3 years, 3 new fire stations were constructed and staffed. The first was on the new extension of Three Oaks Parkway, completed early in 2002. Later that year, a new fire station opened on US41, replacing the old fire station a half mile to the north. In the spring of 2003, the third new station opened near Pinewoods Elementary School, servicing the developments east of I-75. A fourth station was completed in October 2005 at the exciting new Coconut Point Development, near Rapallo along US41.
Excelling into the Future
In the last 5 years, Estero Fire Rescue has grown with the community and continues to do so. By the end of the year, forty-eight first responders will staff the 4 stations, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. About half of them are firefighter/paramedics with many more currently enrolled in paramedic school. These men and women will operate 5 ALS equipped fire engines, all purchased in the last 3 years. In addition, the process has started for the construction of a new administration building adjacent to the Three Oaks fire station.
Just as Estero is rapidly becoming the ‘Jewel’ of Southwest Florida communities, Estero Fire Rescue is being recognized as one of the leading first responder services in the region, providing the best pre-hospital care available. All staff members share the goal of arriving at 90% of the calls in 4 minutes or less, and offering the best service possible to those in need. Their skills are sharpened through constant training, from the study of complex medical procedures to physically taxing fire and rescue drills.
Estero Fire Rescue also believes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That is why the District maintains a team of Fire Inspectors, a Plans Examiner and a Public Education Manager. This group of professionals strives to make our lives and community safer every day, through inspections and innovative safety programs.
The future looks bright for Estero and Estero Fire Rescue, and, while we celebrate the rich past of our community, we believe that the future will be even better. Estero Fire Rescue remains committed to providing the highest quality service to the people of Estero in the years ahead.