Fire departments are divided into three shifts — A, B and C — so when Winter Garden Fire Chief Matt McGrew announced he was moving to “D” shift, that could only mean one thing: Retirement.
McGrew’s final day in his position is Nov. 30, the same date he was hired 14 years ago as deputy fire chief for the city of Winter Garden.
“After 42 amazing years of caring for others, it’s time to focus on my faith, my family, my health and my home,” he said. “I can rest easy knowing that WGFRD is a safe, well-trained, well-equipped and fiscally responsible department. And, if I’ve done my job well, I have set the example that will carry the department on to many more successes.”
TRUSTED AND RESPECTED
McGrew became interested in a career in firefighting because the Orlo Vista fire chief lived on his street when he was growing up. Several of his friends joined the fire department and told him more people were needed. He served with the Orlo Vista Fire Control District before moving to Orange County Fire Rescue, where he rose through the ranks from firefighter to division chief.
He said the career move to Winter Garden in 2006 was a matter of “being in the right place at the right time.”
At the time, Fire Chief John Williamson was without a deputy chief. When he met McGrew and learned of his work on the medical side of the county department, he knew McGrew would be a great asset for Winter Garden.
“It was kind of like the perfect storm,” McGrew said. “I was what Winter Garden needed, and Winter Garden was what I needed.”
The first assignment he was given was to write a plan for the city to obtain its ALS license and bringing aboard paramedics.
“I was so fortunate to come here when I did,” he said. “WGFRD already had the people with the passion, the skills and a never-give-up work ethic; they just needed someone to fill in the blanks and help grow them into the future.”
City officials wanted the department to have a more professional image and improve the services it provided, he said.
“We just grew and grew every year,” he said. “We became a trusted, respected part of the city.”
And it took a team of extraordinary men and women to take the department to where it is today.
“It has never been about me, it has been about providing the best possible service to the community and establishing ourselves as one of the best small fire departments in the state,” he said.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The line-of-duty deaths of firefighter Mark Benge and engineer Todd Aldridge in 1989 had a profound impact on McGrew. He knew Aldridge from the Orlo Vista department and taught Benge in the paramedic/EMT program at Valencia College, and they were friends off the clock as well. The two were fighting an attic fire at a gift shop in Lake Buena Vista when the roof collapsed and trapped them inside the building.
McGrew said many lessons were learned from that tragedy.
“I promised myself, and their families, to make it my career goal to advocate for and promote a safety culture that still allows for a balanced, yet aggressive approach to fighting fire,” he said.
The chief is quick to praise the team he works with.
“I can honestly say the administrative staff and the men and women of the fire rescue department are second to none,” he said.
In a Facebook post announcing his retirement, McGrew wrote:
“My heartfelt thanks go out to all the dispatchers who, many times, were my only allies at 3 a.m. They were my lifeline. … In the latter part of my career, it was the administrative and executive assistants who raised me … from a know-it-all field brat to a successful fire administrator. They are my true heroes.”
Jose “Jojo” Gainza will serve as interim chief until the city makes a decision on who will lead the department as the next chief.
“I told them he had what it takes to be the next fire chief; I believe he would do a great job,” McGrew said. “I’ve been mentoring him this whole time.
McGrew considers himself blessed for the experiences his career has afforded him and the love and support from his wife of 28 years, Teresa, and his family — Jacob, Phillip and Madison — every step of the way, he said.
“They knew how much the fire service meant to me, and they never complained when work interrupted family time,” he said. “And they never suggested that I not go or questioned when I would be back; they only said, ‘Come home safe.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a halt on the McGrews’ 2020 travel plans, but they are looking forward to their bucket-list trip to Israel and the Holy Land next year. He also has some house projects to keep him busy.
“I want to leave with a smile on my face and while I still love coming to work each day,” McGrew said of his decision to retire. “I don’t want to be that guy (who) stayed too long and wasn’t able to give 110% each and every day.”