After nearly 14 years at the helm of East Manatee Fire Rescue District -- a time of explosive growth in the Lakewood Ranch area -- Fire Chief Byron Teates is retiring.
Teates joined the department in 1984 when it had only one full-time employee, Fire Chief Henry Scheffield, and one fire station, to cover a 100-square mile area, all on an annual budget of $108,000. At the time, the department was a volunteer operation and was called the Braden River Fire District.
Today, East Manatee Fire Rescue has six fire stations, property for two more, a paid staff of 74 and a $12 million budget.
“At one point we were the fastest growing area in the country,” Teates said. “We had humble beginnings when you think about what it is today.”
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When Teates joined the district, 90 percent of it was farm, forest and pasture. Lakewood Ranch, Heritage Harbour, Panther Ridge and other now familiar East Manatee neighborhoods did not exist.
The populated areas back then were places like Manatee Palms, neighborhoods along Morgan Johnson Road and Hagle Park.
Taking the reins from Teates will be Deputy Chief Lee Whitehurst.
“We want to get better at what we do, but we are also expanding what we do,” Whitehurst said, referring in part to response to the heroin overdose epidemic.
We have got a bunch of great employees and they are the ones who have made this place successful, and certainly made my job a lot easier over the years.
Fire Chief Byron Teates
Growth will continue to present challenges to East Manatee Fire Rescue.
“You see the effect that an overturned fuel tanker has on Manatee and Sarasota counties,” Whitehurst said of the accident late Monday night that shut down the north and south bound lanes of Interstate 75.
Another challenge faced by the district includes developing new leadership as more seasoned firefighters approach retirement.
“We have to speed things along to get folks ready for the next step in their careers,” Whitehurst said.
When the time comes, the district will build its seventh and eighth stations near Dam Road at its intersection with State Road 64 and near Panther Ridge on State Road 70.
Teates declined to take credit for the district’s success in keeping pace with development, and becoming a more professional fire department.
“We have got a bunch of great employees and they are the ones who have made this place successful, and certainly made my job a lot easier over the years. The vast majority of the credit should be left to them because of the good job they have done,” Teates said.
Although he is still just 59, Teates insisted that he is not planning on extending his career.
“I am going to work for the real chief, my wife Cathy,” he said.
Teates’ last day in the office will be Monday, when the district dedicates its newest fire station to him at 5:30 p.m. The fire station is located at 803 60th Court St. E., south of the Walmart on State Road 64 East.