Ocala Fire Rescue Chief Clint Welborn quietly took up his leading role during a transitional moment in the organization’s history. However, the 23-year department veteran, who diligently worked his way up through the ranks, has maintained a low profile since assuming the post. And that’s OK with him.
Clint Welborn is highly regarded for his management of Ocala Fire Rescue (OFR) by his own team and city officials alike. Welborn was introduced as chief on July 9th of last year, aft er serving as interim chief following the former chief’s departure. And while the circumstances of his ascension may not have been ideal, he is certainly proving he is the ideal person for the job.
As we settle in for our chat, I explain that I could not find much about him online in preparation for our interview, to which Welborn amiably replies, “That’s how I like it. I am a private person”
Welborn is plain-spoken with an innate tone of authority, attentive and engaged, approachable, yet somewhat cautious in a “just the facts” sort of way.
“I was born in Munroe hospital here in Ocala,” he explains. “My family is originally from Mississippi. My mom and my dad both went to Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi). That’s where they met.”His parents also both went on to work in the education field. After the family relocated to Florida, Welborn had a unique educational experience of his own.
“My dad was my elementary principal and my mom was my eighth grade English teacher. And then, as I went on through, she was a guidance counselor and ended up being principal. So, not fun. I couldn’t get away with anything in school,” he offers with a chuckle.
He says he knew early on that he did not want to follow in his parents’ footsteps.
“I didn’t want anything to do with the education system,” he asserts. “I knew that whatever I would be doing would be an outside type of job. I grew up doing everything outdoors. I loved to do things growing up that would create the adrenaline rush. There were several things we would do that probably we shouldn’t have, like trying to find caves to explore and towers to climb.”
But Welborn says that didn’t provide a clue to his future career path.
“Firefighting was not always a dream of mine. I’m not one of those who, when I was a kid, wanted to be a firefighter,” he admits. “Maybe it was something inside that I didn’t realize was there because there was something about seeing emergency vehicles going to scenes. I can remember times when if there was a fi re engine with its lights on going down the street, I would go in that direction and I wondered, ‘What’s going on? Is anybody hurt?’”
Welborn was an avid sportsman until he suffered an arm injury following his senior year of high school, aft er which he attended Florida State University (FSU).
“I started becoming interested in the medical side of things, but I didn’t necessarily want to go to college for eight to 10 years to be a doctor,” he recalls. “So, I started looking at physical therapy and sports medicine. I spent a couple of years there and decided that I just didn’t want to spend my time in college anymore. That’s when I realized that firefighting would be something that would be enjoyable and a way that I could help people on the medical side.”
He explains that fighting fi res represented a chance to not only serve the community, but to experience the same type of adrenaline rush he had enjoyed as a kid.
“Unless you fight fire, you really don’t know what I’m talking about,” he offers. “But firefighters have a special sense when it comes to going in there and fight-ing ‘the beast,’ which is what they would call it. You don’t ever let the fire defeat you. We’re going to go in there and put it out as quick as we can. Now, if there’s a situation where there’s a rescue or something like that, then that is going to take precedence. Your ultimate goal is to save lives. And then you’re focused on saving property. We are there to assist those people on what could be one of the worst days of their life and do what we can to minimize any type of damage.”
Following FSU, Welborn trained at the Florida State Fire College and pursued his EMT certification. It was during that time that HCA Healthcare EMS Manager Michael O’Connor first met Welborn.
“We were in fire college together and we hit it off. We’ve remained very good friends ever since,” O’Connor offers. “He was very dedicated, whether it was learning to tie knots or how to extricate a patient safely out of a vehicle. He was also extremely patient and genuine, always trying to make sure everybody working around him was safe and successful in whatever the task at hand was.”
After receiving his certification, Welborn was hired part-time at the fire department in Newberry, a small town west of Gainesville.
“I worked there for about six months and was then offered a full-time job at Dunnellon Fire Rescue. About six months aft er that, I got the call that they were going to hire me here in Ocala,” he explains. “I started here in August of 1998.”
On a similar path, O’Connor had a front row seat to Welborn’s rise.
“One of the things I remember while we were working together for the City of Ocala was that he was always raising everybody else to a higher level of standard,” O’Connor shares. “So, it makes perfect sense Clint has been put at the helm of that department. He is respected by the men and women who work for the city because of the way he moved up through the ranks. He listens and has a way of helping others come up with a solution. He’s not a micromanager and he’s never judgmental. That is one of the reasons he is a successful leader.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Richie Lietz, Welborn’s deputy chief.
“We were both promoted up through the ranks,” Lietz states. “He got promoted to captain early in his career and then to battalion chief. That was when I started working for him as one of his captains. He set expectations and ground rules and then basically got out of the way and let me manage my crews, the day-to-day operations for my fire station and whatever call I was on. I learned a lot from him by the way he handled me, whether it be motivating my guys or setting ground rules and expectations for my team. He’s an excellent leader.”
Another quality that Capt. Jesse Blaire says is one of Welborn’s greatest is the steadfast support he shows to the team.
“He’s very warm. He cares very much about his employees, about people,” Blaire shares. “And his door is always open.”
Welborn acknowledges that a big part of his role is remaining accessible to team members so he can support them through the inevitable challenges they will face.
“I just want everybody to enjoy coming to work and to take ownership of what they do,” he says of the 141 souls under his command. “I have great staff around me. My chiefs are great mentors to those who are coming through the ranks. We always try to prepare the person for the next step, prepare the firefighters to be drivers, prepare the drivers to be captains, prepare the captains to be battalion chiefs. When you are promoted through the fi re department, you face challenges every time you go to the next level.”
For those coming through the ranks, like Fire Equipment Operator Thiago Novaes, who first had the opportunity to work with Welborn in 2016, the 46-year-old chief is a source of inspiration.
“I could see he was a natural leader by how he held himself, how he talked to people and his knowledge,” Novaes recalls. “I wanted to learn from him, to be around someone who held himself to a higher standard and wants to keep everybody around him to the same standard. He makes you want to be better.”
Welborn recognizes the pressures his team faces and tries to prepare them for success as they navigate their career paths.
“There’s great responsibility in every aspect of being a firefighter, especially when we’re talking about a person’s life. Obviously, that’s the greatest responsibility and probably what creates the greatest pressure because you’re pulling somebody from a fire or out of a building because of a fire, trying to save somebody’s life who’s been in a vehicle accident and has severe injuries or somebody who’s experiencing a life-threatening medical episode,” he explains. “After the call, you go back and you’re thinking in your head, ‘Did I do this right? Did I do this?’ Step by step, you’re checking all the boxes. All you can do is your job. You do what you’re trained to do, which is why the training is long and rigorous. But if you follow your training, you’re going to be successful in what you do. And if you stay up on your training, you’re going to be confident. And you always have to be confident in what you do. Confidence breeds competence. If I’m confident in myself, I’m going to do a good job. Now that I’m the fire chief, my concern is the entire department. The organization, as a whole, is my responsibility. With that responsibility comes the morale of everybody.”
When I point out that this was this first time during our chat that he referred to himself as fire chief, he nods and owns it.
“I don’t think that many people become a fire-fighter to be the fire chief. So, being the fire chief, there is definitely a feeling of humbleness. I am grateful I had the support of the personnel. And the fact that I had the support from my superiors is humbling. It is…it’s humbling,” he continues thoughtfully. “Obviously, it’s a great responsibility, but it’s a challenge that I accepted. And if I accept the challenge, I will do the best that I can.”
After a moment of reflection, I ask what he wants the community to know about OFR.
“I do want the community to know that as the fire chief, I feel that….and yes, I’m biased, I feel the citizens of Ocala have the best fire department around. The personnel are top-notch people who care about the community and they are always striving to do what’s best and to be better at what they do. The citizens deserve the best medically trained EMTs and paramedics and the best trained firefighters. I believe that we have that at Ocala Fire Rescue.”
When he is not leading OFR, there is nowhere he would rather be than with his wife of 24 years, Aubrey, and sons Cade, Coye and Case.
“I love to spend time with my family. I think the best day would be to be able to spend it with my wife and sons, doing something we all enjoy. Being able to laugh and just spend all day together,” he reveals. “I enjoy anything outdoors. I also just like working at my house on our property. It’s a little five-acre piece, but it’s ours and we’ve got a garden going. I coach my youngest son’s baseball team and in my off -time I’m watching my middle son’s high school baseball games. I do like to cook. If it’s grilled, smoked, or anything like that, I enjoy doing it. My favorite thing to smoke is brisket. It’s actually something that I would love to do once I retire. One of my dreams would be to own a food truck type thing.” OS