Lagotic takes turn as firefighter


Justin Lagotic is leaving his post as the public information officer for Alachua County Fire Rescue to become a full-time firefighter.

Lee Ferinden/Special to the Sun
Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2003 at 10:10 p.m.
When he was 14, Justin Lagotic joined a program to start learning about firefighting. And by the time he was 19, he was the voice for the Alachua County Fire Rescue, telling the public about dangerous wildfires and helping educate them with fire safety tips.
But now Lagotic, 22, is turning in his microphone for a full suit of firefighting gear.
Lagotic had been the mouthpiece for ACFR for three years before leaving his spokesman job last month to become a county firefighter.
Lagotic has wanted to be a firefighter since childhood, when he visited his uncle, a firefighter, at a fire station in Coral Gables.
When he was 14, the lifelong Gainesville resident joined the Explorers program, which lets high school students learn about different careers. Lagotic's passion was to learn about firefighting and emergency services.
And when he graduated from Gainesville High School in 1998, he went straight to the fire college in Ocala for a summer course on firefighting - "when it was a million degrees," Lagotic laughed.
But even after he was done with firefighting school, he wasn't done with his education. His parents urged him to get a four-year college degree, and by December 2002, he graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in telecommuni- cations.
During college, he worked his way up the ranks to become public information officer at ACFR.

Crunch time

His first assignment as public information officer was to inform the public about the 3,000-acre brush fire in Waldo in the summer of 2000. The fire threatened some homes, forced authorities to close numerous roads and was the object of a frantic effort to extinguish it before it grew even larger.
And the pace hasn't let up much since then.
"Some weeks we're extremely busy," Lagotic said. "I can remember leaving a call on one side of the county to go to the other side of the county and then getting paged and having to go back across the county again."
Lagotic was routinely awakened in the early morning hours by his pager, signifying a fire or bad car accident. Often, he had a class at UF just hours later.
Being a public information officer and a firefighter has changed his outlook on things even as ordinary as rain.
"Before, I'd open the window and find it relaxing," Lagotic said. "Now, I get on my boots and know I'm probably going to have to work."
Rain brings car accidents, downed wires and debris, he said. After every big thunderstorm, Lagotic called dispatchers to check if there was any damage.
With school, studying, spokesman duties, his fraternity membership and social time, Lagotic said he never had down time in the past few years. But he said he liked it that way.
"I like the crunch," said Lagotic, who likes running, hiking, waterskiing and snow-skiing when he isn't talking to reporters or fighting fires.
Lagotic also likes spending time with his parents, who live in the area, and his older sister, who lives in Jacksonville.
And while some people asked him how he could take on so much responsibility at such a young age, Lagotic said age isn't as important as maturity level.
"Whenever something would arise here, I looked at it as what do we have here and how are we going to fix it," he said.
Lagotic needed that maturity to cope with the day that shook up the country - Sept. 11, 2001.
Lagotic had left his spokesman job for two semesters to work as a general assignment reporter at News 5, a UF television station. He was at work when he first heard the news.
"I had mixed emotions," Lagotic said. "I was deeply saddened when the towers went down, but I was also angry at whoever did it."
Lagotic became even more convinced then that he wanted to become a firefighter.
"You don't do it for the money," he said. "You do it because you love it. . . . You can impact people so highly. They're in the worst circumstances they can be, but you're there to make it better."

'That special charisma'

It's that mature attitude, along with Lagotic's intelligence and ability to interact with people, that makes him stand out, ACFR District Chief Ed Kennedy said.
"He's got that special charisma. Even at 15, he was very mature," Kennedy said. "Even as an Explorer, the firefighters here treated him differently than the other Explorers. Everybody took him under their wings a little bit because there was something special about him."
And not only did Lagotic adapt well to fire services, he seems to have an innate ability to know just what to say to the news media, Kennedy said.
Lagotic has always been focused and mature, said his mother, Diana Lagotic of Gainesville.
One day in middle school, Justin forgot his trumpet on the bus, his mother said.
He called her at work and told her not to worry because he'd already called the School Board's transportation office and they found the trumpet and would arrange to have it for him the next day.
"He's really good at problem solving and trying to do it independently," Diana Lagotic said. "He's kind of always been like that."
And what does the future holds for Lagotic?
Ed Kennedy said he's pretty sure he knows.
"I have no doubt that when I retire, he'll be right behind me trying to fill in my shoes," Kennedy said.
But if Lagotic knows what the future holds, he's not saying. He's just starting a new path- full-time firefighting- but said television journalism has always interested him, too.
"I'm sure I'll enjoy the next door that opens for me," he said.
Kathy Ciotola can be reached at 338-3109 or ciotolk@gvillesun.com.

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