SEBRING - For more than a year, Austin Maddox traveled every third day to DeSoto County to work as a paid firefighter because even though he lives in Sebring he couldn't find a paid firefighting job in Highlands County.
As of next month, Maddox will only have to travel several blocks to work at Sebring's downtown fire station.
With his wife pregnant, the savings of about $4,000 in gas will help a lot, he said.
A year ago Maddox would have been unable to have found such a position with the Sebring Fire Department. At that time, the department had a hiring freeze until a union contract was resolved. Because of the freeze, firefighters often worked back-to-back shifts and overtime.
The department hired part-time firefighters to help reduce that overtime.
But, with the lifting of the freeze last August, the department hired six full-time firefighters, including three of the part-timers.
Melinda Geer of Port St. Lucie, one of the other three firefighters hired, said she's enjoyed the time she's spent working for the fire department.
"Things have been rolling along," she said. "Every day has been a new learning experience."
Geer and the other five firefighters hired were just the beginning. Currently, the Fire Department is looking to hire one more firefighter and an inspector, Fire Chief Brad Batz said. The next step would be to fill two vacant positions for lieutenants.
Batz said he would like to promote candidates from within the department. If that's the case, the department would likely hire additional firefighters.
But that's not a certainty as candidates must meet qualifications for lieutenant, Batz said.
He isn't ruling out hiring someone from outside the department if there's not enough interest from within, or those who are interested don't meet the qualifications.
Batz also wants to keep some part-time firefighting positions on each shift, to handle contingencies, such as if a firefighter needs an operation and is off work for a protracted amount of time.
The inspector will check schools, assisted living facilities, restaurants and other places for compliance with fire codes, he said.
Meanwhile, Maddox said, he looks forward to spending more time in Sebring. He said he's involved in civic and sports activities in Sebring.
"Most everything I do is in Sebring," Maddox said.