Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014
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Hernando’s public safety director settling in

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— Hanging on the wall of Scott Hechler’s office is a foot-long wooden replica of the hammer of Thor, the superhero who uses it to fly and smash his foes.

Hechler said he invites visitors to lift “Mighty Mjolnir” and feel the power.

It’s all in fun, said Hechler, who started his new job last week as Hernando County public safety director, which makes him head of fire services and animal control.

He also keeps other objects of interest in his office, including a mini desk gnome with Dallas Cowboy sunglasses and a wall certificate showing his achievement in martial arts.

Hechler said such personal touches help put people at ease and reduce stress in what can be a hectic environment.

Hechler, 50, said his management style will be similarly low-key and he already has begun the lengthy process of meeting his troops in the field.

In the next few weeks he wants to visit all the county’s fire stations, speak with as many firefighters and EMS personnel as possible, and listen to their concerns. That also goes for the sheriff’s office, the two volunteer fire agencies and Brooksville police — all partners in public safety.

“I want to personally try to meet every person in every shift and establish a relationship,” said Hechler, who has a foot locker on the floor by his desk still packed with stuff to arrange in his office off Veterans Avenue in Brooksville.

County Administrator Len Sossamon hired Hechler from Spotsylvania County, Va., where he was deputy fire chief. He was chosen over 40 other candidates, some of whom were local employees seeking to move up to the top role.

Hechler said he is aware that many could consider him an outsider and that’s fine. In fact, it’s normal for employees to be concerned — or even afraid — when someone from outside an organization takes control, he said.

That includes union representatives, some of whom were upset the county did not promote from within for fire chief.

“It’s understandable,” he said. “I’m an unknown factor.”

Hechler, who will make $100,000 annually, said nobody need fear that he has come to exert a “my way or the highway” philosophy.

Far from being a micro-manager, Hechler said his leadership style is all about building a collaborative spirit in the Hernando County Fire Rescue District. And that includes the animal services department, also under his jurisdiction.

Hechler describes himself as a servant leader, willing to look at the para-military organization from the larger perspective and let those with institutional knowledge contribute to a long-term plan.

He doesn’t fear change, he said, but won’t do it merely for the sake of doing something different. A department will improve if it makes the right changes to suit the needs of the whole, he said.

“Emotion-based decision-making is rarely a good thing,” he said. “I like to lay it all on the table. It’s OK to have disagreements.”

“The best leaders surround themselves with people who are the best at what they do, then give them the latitude to do their job and not micromanage,” Hechler said.

Hechler said his job will be to exude calm in sometimes chaotic situations. And, he stresses, every call to an employee under his authority will be treated seriously and professionally.

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Hechler worked until June 13 as deputy fire chief for the northern Virginia county. He took the weekend to move to Hernando County and settled in on Monday.

For two years in Spotslvania, he provided leadership and executive management for fire and emergency medical services (EMS) uniform and civilian personnel consisting of 173 career and about 330 volunteer responders. He also led the operations, training, and EMS/safety and health divisions.

Spotsylvania has 13 stations covering 440 square miles and 125,000 residents. Hechler was also a Virginia state fire adjunct instructor and an emergency services consultant.

Before that, Hechler was director of Campbell County Public Safety in Virginia.

Three days into the Hernando job he was meeting county commissioners and his colleagues, including Deputy Fire Chief Mike Nickerson and Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Carroll.

He said he is diving into the history of Hernando County — what works; what doesn’t.

“I have no pre-conceived notions of what is necessarily needed to move this department forward at this point,” he said.

First, he wants to review the policies and procedures of both the fire department and animal services. He will update what needs updating and work on a strategic plan for each department.

After the initial meet-and-greets are concluded, Hechler said he wants to form a group of people from inside the fire department, animal services and other partners to work on a road map of where the organization aims to be in five years.

“We will create a shared vision and then work on how to get there,” he said.

Hechler said he jumped at the Hernando County position because he likes the climate and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, which satisfies his love of water sports.

Hechler has a home in Pine Island, with access to the Gulf, and plans to water ski and kayak. He is single and has three grown children, two of whom live in Virginia and one in Montreal.

He sees the public safety director position as a great career move.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” he said. “It’s someplace I wanted to be. It’s close to the water; it’s a warmer climate. The opportunity came and I jumped at it.”

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When he was a kid, Hechler took Tae Kwon Do classes and got hooked on martial arts. Today he is a fifth-degree black belt. He’s an avid golfer, fitness freak and, though he admits he might catch flak for it, a Dallas Cowboys fan.

He likes superhero movies, especially the recent “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” He prefers to wait until certain TV shows are collected on DVD and watch them in a marathon viewing. The popular “Game of Thrones” is a favorite, he said.

His musical tastes range from new country groups such as the Zac Brown Band to old-school country. People who call him will hear a recording of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” while on hold.

He enjoys author Dan Brown (DaVinci Code), biographies of famous people and books on leadership.

He said these days he mostly is reading the policies and procedures manual for the Hernando County Fire Rescue to get up to speed on the organization.

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County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes met with Hechler last week.

“I’m glad he’s here,” Dukes said. “He understands that, being a new chief, there’s always that ‘sit back and take notes and see how the process works,’” he said. “I think he’s taking the right approach going around and meeting everyone he can and calming down people who have fears of a new chief coming here.”

Some of those fears are silly, he said, such as one rumor that Hechler was going to change the color of all the fire engines.

Dukes knows Hechler faces challenges, including dealing with a vehicle replacement program.

Dukes said he has asked Hechler to keep the commission posted on developments.

“It’s going to take 90 days for him to get a feel for what’s going on,” Dukes said. “I’ve asked him to kind of keep in touch with the board as he’s working through this.”

Bobby Rae, president of the Hernando County Professional Firefighters Union, said last month before the hire that rank-and-file firefighters were upset the county did not choose someone local.

But Rae said he has been emailing Hechler the last few weeks and the new chief seems cordial. He hopes any past concerns will be swept away.

“We’re going to work with him,” Rae said. “He’s the chief now.”

Rae said he is waiting to meet one-on-one with Hechler.

“We’ve all got to move on now,” Rae said. “ I believe we’re all going to be on the same page with everything.”

Douglas Barnes, county administrator with Spotsylvania County, said Hechler was looking for a career move and he supports his decision.

Hernando County, he said, “is getting a good man.”

“He’s got the qualifications and the experience,” Barnes said.

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