AVON PARK — As a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force, Stephen Larison didn’t have many calls to structure fires, but he was trained and ready for the important role of responding to aircraft crashes.
After more than 20 years fighting fires in the military and then many more years, as a civilian, heading the Avon Park Air Force Range Fire Department, Larison is retiring this month.
To be exact, the 70-year-old served 21 years, three months and 10 days in the Air Force and was stationed in Vietnam, Thailand, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Alaska, Texas, California, Missouri and Florida.
His time in Thailand and Vietnam was during the “wind down” period of the Vietnam War so it wasn’t too bad, he said, but he was away from his family and was also away form his family when he served in Alaska.
The Air Force historically is really strict on fire regulations so it doesn’t have a lot of building fires, Larison explained. “I have been on two in 50 years and none of them here” at the Avon Park Air Force Range where he first served starting in 1983.
“But, we have had several crashes out on the range,” he noted.
In 1983 Larison was a master sergeant and the fire chief at the range. After two years he was promoted to senior master sergeant and was transferred to New Mexico where he served for two years.
After he retired from the Air Force, he returned to the Avon Park Air Force Range in 1988 with the same job, as fire chief, but in a civilian capacity.
How has fighting fires changed in 50 years?
“Back in the day, you kind of charged into fires and didn’t really look in front of you or behind you and didn’t know what you were getting into,” Larison said. “Now the sophistication is so that we have machines that tell you exactly where a fire is and outlining the hot spots. The whole protection thing of firefighters has come around 360 degrees for the better.”
Did he ever have any close calls for his own personal safety?
“I have been very lucky and had good supervisors when I was younger,” he said. “I actually never got caught in anything.”
When asked if he had any instances that required a lengthy period of duty, Larison said for some of the aircraft crashes on the range, they were on the scene for quite a while, not actually fighting the fire, but guarding the area and protecting the resources.
“We have done some ground search and rescues out here for people who were lost,” he added.
Currently, the range’s fire department has 21 on staff. It is supposed to have 42, but it is funded for 21, Larison said.
Larison and Bonnie, his wife of 51 years, plan to stay in the area, but do a little traveling.
“We have a motor home. We might go out somewhere, but I am staying in the area,” Larison said. “All the kids and grand-kids and great-grand-kids, most of them, are right here.”
The Larisons live on 10 acres off of State Road 64 near the Air Force range.
There will be a retirement party in Larison’s honor on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Avon Park VFW.
He will officially retire on Sunday, Sept. 30.
I have been in the fire service all of my adult life,” Larison said.