East Manatee Fire Rescue District Chief Lee Whitehurst speaks at the grand opening of the district’s Station 8, which is Lakewood Ranch’s fifth fire station.

When Don O’Leary moved to Lakewood Ranch 23 years ago, he saw the potential for growth in the area.

As a former firefighter for the New York Fire Department, he knew how crucial it was to have fire stations close by, but two years later, he didn’t see much progress on bringing stations to Lakewood Ranch.

“Where the hell is the fire department?” O’Leary said.

Two decades later, East Manatee Fire Chief Lee Whitehurst said O’Leary was vital in acquiring land for multiple Lakewood Ranch fire stations.

Lakewood Ranch now has five fire stations with the newest, which became operational April 19, bearing the name of O’Leary, the man some call the “mayor of Lakewood Ranch” who eventually became an East Manatee Fire Rescue District Commissioner in 2011 and served in the role until 2019.

The station will serve as a second administration center for the East Manatee fire district. Previously, administration for all seven East Manatee stations spanning about 100 square miles was located at 3220 Lakewood Ranch Blvd. Seven is the maximum number of stations allowed under the authority of one battalion chief.

East Manatee Fire Rescue District Commissioner Bob Conley looks on as Audrey O’Leary and former Fire Commissioner Don O’Leary are congratulated by Fire Chief Lee Whitehurst.

Firefighters work in 24-hour shifts, so each day, the on-shift battalion chief would be charged with visiting each of the seven stations. East Manatee Fire Chief Lee Whitehurst said this posed a problem when the battalion chief was visiting, say, the western edge of the district’s response area and a fire broke out on the eastern edge. Having two battalion chiefs, one for each half of the district, on duty at a time will help alleviate that problem.

From here on, Station 1 and its battalion chief will provide support west of Lorraine Road, while Station 8 and its battalion chief will provide support east of Lorraine Road. If a battalion chief is tied up with a large fire on one side of the district, the other battalion chief temporarily extends responsibility to the entire district.

Whitehurst said Station 8 is in the perfect location to assist the two Myakka City stations if the East Manatee district’s pending merger with the Myakka City Fire Control District goes through in October.

East Manatee Fire Rescue District Station 8 will house a small boat, brush truck and tanker engine. The station opened April 19.

Station 8’s fire engine is an engine tanker, which was designed for the station because it holds more water than the average fire engine. This will be important for neighborhoods such as Panther Ridge, which don’t have fire hydrants. The station also has a brush truck and a boat for inland lake emergencies.

In a year, Station 8 will receive a specialty vehicle that can refill airpacks, provide on-scene rehabilitation for firefighters and provide lighting and electricity. Whitehurst said lighting is especially important because there are fewer streetlights the farther east his crews go.

“We’ll be able to run that truck out to downtown Myakka to refill their bottles instead of them having to come all the way into another station to get that done,” Whitehurst said.

In addition to increasing safety, the opening of Station 8 might have a positive impact on some East County residents’ wallets. Some residences in Panther Ridge and The Concession were beyond 5 miles of any East Manatee fire station, which Whitehurst said is a benchmark in the insurance industry.

Whitehurst recommended residents of Panther Ridge and The Concession who might not have lived within 5 miles of a fire station before call their insurance agents to ask if the completion of the station could lower their rates.

With the completion of Station 8, Whitehurst said about 95% of addresses within the East Manatee fire district are within 5 miles of a fire station, although that figure will decrease if the Myakka City fire district merger goes through.

Whitehurst said O’Leary was instrumental in acquiring the land where Station 8 now rests.

“He insisted that station be a little bit bigger than our other stations we were building,” Whitehurst said. “He envisioned, with the growth going on out east, that we would need to have more equipment than just an engine and a bus truck. … As it turns out now, he was right.”