PACE — Chief Robert "Robbie" Whitfield of the Pace Fire Rescue District was not sure if he wanted to attend The Florida's Fire Chiefs' Association Annual Conference this year.

It was in Boca Raton and he was not looking forward to making the drive. Eventually, he decided to attend and came back home as the Florida Fire Chiefs' Association Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year for 2019.

"It was a complete surprise," Whitfield said. "I think my wife knew I was getting the award because she kept telling me we should go."

Whitfield said he does not know who nominated him and they would not tell him at the ceremony.

While his nominator may be anonymous, the reasons for the award are endless.

Whitfield has worked to improve the fire response services in Santa Rosa County, and he got Pace its own fire district.

"I started as volunteer when I was 16 years old in Ferry Pass," Whitfield said.

Firefighting has been his only career. Whitfield became the fire chief in Pace in 2016 and immediately started making improvements wherever he could. And he has not stopped.

"We should be getting a new fire truck anytime now to replace a 20-year-old truck we have been using," Whitfield said.

The new fire truck cost $500,000. Whitfield said he has started working on next year’s budget to buy additional equipment for the truck.

He has also approved plans for small one- or two-truck stations throughout the county.

"As we grow we can add these smaller stations. Having bought the plans, we do not have to purchase them again to build a new station," Whitfield said.

The Pea Ridge station is the next project. Whitfield wants to renovate it and then staff it 24 hours a day. He said that it takes a minimum of four firefighters a shift to operate a truck and they will have to hire more firefighters to staff the station. Whitfield said the Pea Ridge Connector would substantially reduce firefighter response times once the connector is complete.

Whitfield said they would also be taking over fire building inspection for the county in October.

The Pace Fire Rescue District currently has 20 full time, 15 volunteers and five part time firefighters.

As the county grows, so will the need for fire protection. Whitfield said anyone interested in becoming a firefighter should contact the Pace station for additional information.

Whitfield said the Pace station is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Details on an upcoming open house at the fire station will be available soon.