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Marco Island Fire-Rescue Chief Murphy: Being a firefighter means having two families

On his first day as a paramedic in Miramar, Florida, Michael D. Murphy was sent on a call to save a baby who drowned in a canal. 

"I went to the side of the house and out comes the parent holding the baby lifeless in his hands," Murphy said.

Murphy grabbed the baby, intubated him in the back of the rescue truck and performed CPR, he said. The baby started breathing as they reached the hospital.

For the next 10 years, the baby's parents brought him to the fire station on the anniversary of the incident to thank the people who saved his life.

"Those things impact you for the rest of your life, and they make the job so worth it," he said.

Murphy, Marco Island fire chief for the past 19 years, is retiring after 50 years in the fire-rescue service. His last day in office will be July 31.

Murphy, 67, was born in New York City in 1953 and was a product of parochial schooling. His dad worked in sanitation and his mom in banking.

In 1968, Murphy's dad retired and the family moved to Miramar. There he finished high school and in 1970 began to volunteer with the local fire and rescue department.

Shortly after, Broward County certified Murphy as a paramedic, and by the mid-1970s he became one of the first paramedics in Florida to be state-certified.

A 1974 photo of Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department Chief Michael Murphy, center, during a certification training exercise in Miramar, Florida, hangs on the wall in his office at Fire Station 50 in Marco Island on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Chief Murphy spent the first 30 years of his career in Miramar before being selected as Fire Rescue Chief for Marco in 2001.

In 1975, Murphy and his partner became the first two paramedics of the department to receive a salary, working 56 hours per week, he said. Murphy would drive the EMS truck and his partner would drive the fire truck and vice versa.

It went on for a couple of years until the city hired additional firefighters and paramedics.

Murphy later became lieutenant of an engine crew, and in 1981 became second in command in charge of running operations, the equivalent of a deputy chief today.

In early 1990s, Murphy became the Miramar fire-rescue chief. In 1999, he was selected by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to be chairman of a domestic security task force on terrorism, which he did until 2002. He lead the group to create a terrorism response plan for the state prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Pat Speek, former executive assistant to the chief in Miramar, said Murphy would go beyond his duties to help victims of house fires.

When there was a house fire, he was the first one to help clean up, rebuild and get them places to stay, she said.

Speek said Murphy would not leave a house fire scene until he made sure the family was OK, sometimes even helping them pack what they could salvage.

"Family came first, whether it was firefighter family or his own family or your family," she said.

Murphy retired in 2001, promising his wife, Barbara, he would settle down, but later that year he was selected as the fire-rescue chief of Marco Island.

He accepted the position with her blessing, he said.

Marco Island challenges

One of Murphy's first emergency calls on Marco Island was to help a man who had suffered a heart attack in front of his home at Collier Boulevard, he said.

When Murphy arrived with his team all they were allowed to do was take vital signs and give oxygen to the patient. 

Collier County rules at the time prohibited the department, which had a over 20 employees, from using IVs and administering medication, according to Murphy.

"They were all capable of doing it and they did help do it when the (county) paramedics got there," he said. "So why did they have to wait?"

Murphy said he worked with the county medical director and city officials to make sure that every paramedic on Marco could use their skills to the best of their abilities.

Marco paramedics are now allowed to carry drugs on their trucks, Murphy said. The department currently has 28 paramedics out of 36 shift personnel.

Murphy faced other challenges as he settled into the new job.

Some groups did not have a favorable opinion of the department because they thought it was spending too much money and that firefighters were not doing their jobs, he said.

Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department Chief Michael Murphy poses for a portrait at Fire Station 50 in Marco Island on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Once he retires, Chief Murphy is planning on taking an extended road trip with his wife, Barbara.

Murphy, who was selected in 2006 as Florida Fire Chief of the Year, said he started sending firefighters to the groups' meetings to educate them about the department and their duties. 

Firefighters would bring a fire truck, take vitals and talk with residents, he said.

"The response of that group was very positive," Murphy said. "All they needed to do is make contact and understand the issue." 

If you are honest with your people, you tell them what you believe is in their best interest and you listen to them, it is a success, he said.

Murphy said one of his biggest accomplishments as fire-rescue chief on Marco is the construction of the new Fire Station 51 located at 751 E. Elkcam Circle. It was dedicated on March 15 last year.

An old fire station building at the same location built in 1965 was out of service since 1997, according to Murphy.

"We reopened the station because 40% of the calls occur on that area," Murphy said.

With the the new Fire Station 51 the department's response time to emergencies dropped from up to 12 minutes to below six minutes in over 90% of the calls, according to Murphy. 

Fire Station 51 is not the only station Murphy has sought to replace. For nearly nine years he has been working to replace Marco's main fire station, known as Fire Station 50, at 1280 San Marco Road.

The new fire station building was designed several years ago but it never materialized because of the city's budget constraints, according to Murphy. 

On Feb. 3, Marco Island City Council authorized the city manager to proceed with the second architectural drawing of the new Fire Station 50. The station would now also serve as an emergency operation center during natural disasters such as hurricanes.

The approximately 25,000-square-foot building is estimated to cost as much as $11.7 million, according to a cost opinion made by BSSW Architects.

The construction of the current facilities, built in 1991, was short-sighted, according to Murphy.

"We would have been great had they built the right building 30 years ago but they didn't," he said.

The building has gone through numerous changes since Marco became a city in 1997, according to Murphy. It served as City Hall, and it once housed the police department. 

"Then the firefighters got pushed to the back and the police officers moved in here," Murphy said. "Nobody was looking at the long term."

City Councilor Larry Honig wrote in an email that Murphy will be a "tough act to follow."

"Chief Murphy has given Marco Island the best-trained, fastest-response emergency service in Florida," he wrote. "He has built a strong bench of leaders and firefighter-paramedics who share his genial nature and calm demeanor, pleasant veneers on top of deep professionalism."

Marco Island Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano wrote in an email that she has learned a lot from Murphy since she became chief last year and has seen firsthand how much he means to the community.

"I am proud to have been able to serve Marco Island with him as a guide and hope to continue his legacy of exceeding expectations," she wrote.

'Life is precious'

As Fire Station 50 was being designed for a second time, COVID-19 started wreaking havoc in the United States and all over the world.

Marco Island directed staff more likely to be affected by the virus, like Murphy, to work from home. It allowed him to spend more time with his wife. 

"I'm so passionate about this job I could do it until the day I die, but I also started realizing that I owe her more, and I owe my grandchildren more," he said.

However, spending more time with his wife was not the only reason that made him consider retirement.

Seminole Tribe Fire Chief Don DiPetrillo, a friend of Murphy for almost 40 years, died April 30 of COVID-19.

"Don was a lot like me," he said. "He had a passion for the service and for giving back to the community.

"And he was going to retire almost two years ago." 

Murphy said DiPetrillo always had a reason not to retire because it is hard to give up being a fire chief.

"Life is precious, and family life is very precious," he said. "It's time to give to the family."

Photos from a 1976 house fire in Miramar, Florida, that show Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department Chief Michael Murphy, left, with his coworker Tom Carney, right, sit on a table in Chief Murphy's office at Fire Station 50 in Marco Island on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

But family has a dual meaning for firefighters like Murphy.

Seven years after Murphy began working in Miramar, he was in New York with family when one of his brothers called to tell him their father died of a heart attack. Murphy got on a plane to fly home.

At the airport, the crew members who attempted to save his father's life were waiting for Murphy, he said.

One of them cried as he told Murphy he did everything he could to save his dad's life. 

Firefighters have one of the best jobs in the world, according to Murphy.

"You are blessed by having two families: the one at home and the one at work," he said.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter  as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.