Robert Weech

Interim Polk County Fire Rescue Department Chief Robert Weech takes over the department on June 1.

The ongoing controversy surrounding Polk County Fire Rescue took a new turn last week when the county appointed an interim fire chief to tackle the problems outlined in a report to the county commission.

The new Fire Rescue Department leader is the department’s chief logistics and special services officer, Robert Weech, who has been with the department for about two years. Weech inherited the department from Chief Tony Stravino, who had been chief for only three years.

Stravino retired May 7, just before Polk County Manager Jim Freeman faced the press to review a consultant’s report on a fatal fire that claimed the life of a 76-year-old north Lakeland woman six months ago.

Weech now has to lead a department facing a wrongful death lawsuit and a storm of controversy over how the department handled the November fire call from Loretta Pickard, who died alone as her Rockridge log home burned around her.

“We obviously have inherited serious issues and challenges (that) we have to meet head-on,” Weech said May 9. “Now, we have to move forward and make adjustments.”

Weech will have the 242-page investigative report, which contains 24 recommendations from the consulting company that investigated the Pickard fire, to follow as he takes the helm of the 600-person department.

“Not only will the report be my road map,” he explained, “but we’ll use that just as our starting point and we’ll enhance it. We will use it to show us our challenges and our weaknesses.”

The investigation followed reports that Pickard died while she was talking with a 9-1-1 operator and allegations that firefighters did not attempt to rescue her.

The supervisor at the fire scene, Capt. James Williams, resigned in March after it came to light that he had posted videos of the fire to social media, in violation of several county policies.

There were 24 recommendations contained in the lengthy report and Weech said he plans to “dissect it and analyze the issues.”

Some, he said, “are complex and some are simple. We need to cut to the core and fix them.”

Weech echoed the findings of the review panel, saying “communication was an issue in that incident and we will work diligently to refine and perfect our internal communications methods. We will also continue to work closely with the Polk County Sheriff’s Department to improve our operations to the best of our ability.”

Stravino’s retirement is effective at the end of May and Weech said he will be working closely with the outgoing chief for an easy transition.

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