By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
VOLUSIA COUNTY - Mark Piland long knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
"I started as a volunteer firefighter," he said. "I was still in high school. I think they felt sorry for me, and slid me in a little early."
He's helped rescue hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the last 35 years. He rode fire trucks for about 20 years, and headed up a Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Rescue Team that went to Haiti hours after its 7.0 earthquake in 2010.
Now Mr. Piland is here to stay in Volusia. The Volusia County Council recently approved the county manager's decision to hire the 52-year-old to be the fire chief and director of Fire Services. Mr. Piland had been serving as the interim fire chief since 2011. He took the position not long after moving from Virginia Beach to be the deputy fire chief of operations.
The new chief said he emphasizes customer service.
"When you're looking for a doctor, you have a choice," he said. "When people call 911, you don't have a choice. You get what you get. And it's usually your worst day."
The chief started his career in 1977 at the Kempsville Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad. Kempsville is a borough of Virginia Beach, Va. By '89, he was a captain. Mr. Piland moved up to battalion chief by 2000. His whole career was inspired in a single moment.
"There was a fire right down the street when I was a small kid," he said. "I was really taken by all that (equipment and bravery)."
So, the lad started making his mom take him by fire stations, where he was introduced to the tools of the trade.
"You get bit by the bug," he said. "You love it and it gets in your blood."
The Volusia County Fire Services has about 170 crew members, and 14 civilian employees. Its 21 stations cover about 9,100 acres. Its budget is about $23 million a year. As property values have declined and stagnated in recent years, the fire services' budget has suffered.
Chief Piland lives in Orange City with his wife, Wanda, and 6-year-old daughter, Isabella.
In an industry with about 100 work-related deaths a year, the chief said he hopes his legacy is that all his firefighters make it to their children's most important days.
"That's the bottom line - everyone goes home," he said. "If something happens to the firefighter, he can't help you. We've got to get those guys home to their families."