Oviedo’s longest-serving public official, Lars White, settles into a well-deserved retirement.
Lars White was a high-school senior when, on a lark, he answered a call for help by Oviedo’s volunteer fire department.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it a try,’ he recalls.
It worked out pretty well. Lars would go on to spend almost four decades with the department – he began as a volunteer, became one of the few original paid firefighters in 1983, and recently retired as Oviedo’s longest-running fire chief.
Lars has watched as his department grew with the city, and it has amassed a staggering record of accomplishments and accolades along the way.
Yet he exudes nothing but humility and grace.
“I’ve been blessed to fill a leadership role,” says the 58-year-old Lars, who served as chief from 2004 to January of this year. “I was only successful because of the core of employees in the department. They’ve always supported me, and I owe them a great deal of gratitude.”
Lars was born in Winter Park but has lived in Oviedo since 1968, when his family moved to a horse farm in the Black Hammock area.
“It was a wonderful childhood,” he says.
Oviedo was literally a one-traffic-light town when Lars arrived, and as late as 1983, he was one of just three firefighters on the City payroll.
Unlike a lot of kids, Lars had not grown up wanting to be a firefighter. But his experiences as a high-school volunteer immediately pushed him in that direction. When he joined the inaugural staff, his starting pay was $12,500 a year.
“I fell in love with it from the very beginning,” Lars says of his profession. “There is so much satisfaction in helping people in their greatest time of need.”
Lars quickly moved up the ranks – lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, division chief, and, finally, chief of the entire department.
He has also served as Oviedo’s emergency management director, meeting the challenges of seven hurricane activations, with Irma being the most recent. Lars implemented the first tornado siren warning in the state, and he recently oversaw construction of the cutting-edge fire station near Oviedo on the Park.
A history buff, Lars served as president of the Oviedo Historical Society and helped launch the popular Farmers Market the society hosts outside the Lawton House.
He is perhaps most proud of his work as chapter coordinator for the Safe Haven for Newborns program, which allows the parents of unwanted newborns to deliver them to the safety of a staffed fire department with no questions asked. The goal is to prevent infant abandonment, and, Lars says, the program has been hugely successful.
Lars has seen a number of changes in his profession over the years, most of them positive. Advances in protective clothing and equipment have made firefighting safer. Meanwhile, Lars has witnessed the growth of women in what was once a completely male-dominated field.
He’s also pleased that firefighters, along with other first-responders, are more encouraged these days to get help for the psychological trauma so common in dealing with crisis situations.
“There are certainly those calls that still weigh on your mind, particularly dealing with small children,” Lars says.
The now-former Chief has mentally prepared for retirement for the past couple of years, and the final decision came easily.
“Stepping down from a very active profession like this, I kind of worried about putting the brakes on too quickly,” Lars says. “But 35 years in fire service is quite a long time. Change is good.”
Lars, the father of grown children David and Lauren, looks forward to spending more time with his own parents, and also traveling with his wife, Gale. Italy is at the top of their list.
A New Era
Lars is leaving his office in good hands – former Division Chief Jeff Buchanan took over as fire chief earlier this year after a lengthy career with the department.
“I’m excited about it,” Jeff says. “It’s an honor to be selected.”
Jeff, 53, is an Oviedo High graduate. Like Lars, he joined the department as a volunteer in 1984. Jeff can trace his affection for the profession to when, as a kid, he watched Emergency!, the 1970s television show about a Los Angeles team of medical and rescue workers known as Squad 51.
While admitting that he is a bit more reserved in nature than his predecessor, Jeff says he always admired how the former chief embraced the Oviedo community, and he intends to build on that.
“I have big shoes to fill,” Jeff says.
Lars does not plan to vanish from the Oviedo scene after all these years. He has discussed with Oviedo leaders the possibility of continuing to do contract work, particularly in emergency management.
“I’m quite sure,” Lars says, “that I will continue to serve.”
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