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Story Written by: Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.
Florida Forest Ranger Robert Smith was born in Arcadia but says because his family was in the ministry, he was fortunate to be able to travel and explore most of Florida and Georgia during his childhood. In 2009, his family settled in Okeechobee, and he says this is the longest amount of time he has ever lived in one place.
Due to their ministry and lifestyle when he was growing up, Ranger Smith attended various private schools and was also home schooled by his mother, whom he describes as very supportive. He says his favorite subjects were physical science and world history.
For the last two years, he has dedicated himself to advancing his education with the goal in mind of becoming a certified structural firefighter. He recently completed his EMT (emergency medical technician) certification and is currently enrolled in Indian River State College for a Firefighter II certification. He currently works two jobs, Florida Forest Service and All County Ambulance to advance his opportunities and further his knowledge in fire science.
Because he is so busy with work and school, Ranger Smith has not found time for a serious relationship, but he says he does make time for his Facebook rescue dog, Yeti, and when he does have any free time, he and Yeti love to hike, camp and fish. He also really enjoys traveling, meeting new people and seeing new places. One of the main reasons he enjoys working for the Florida Forest Service is that he can travel all around Florida and the nation fighting wildfires, but then when his service is no longer needed, he can come home to Okeechobee County.
When he has extra time, he volunteers to go out to the western states and help with wildfires and disaster relief. He also volunteers with Okeechobee County Fire Rescue as Firefighter/EMT just to help out the community as much as he possibly can. He also works part-time for an ambulance service partly because he enjoys meeting new people every day.
Ranger Smith chose to become a forest ranger/ fire fighter thanks in part to his dad. He taught him a healthy respect for fire as a tool. Growing up in rural areas, he remembers his father burning yard trash. As a little tyke, he wanted desperately to be old enough to burn the pile, but his dad said he wasn’t old enough yet. He secretly would set his toys ablaze until one day he got caught and disciplined. As an adult, he still remembers the day with great pride his dad allowed him to ignite the burn pile. Under his supervision with explicit instructions, he was taught the basics of fire.
Another contributing factor was the events surrounding 911. As a sixth grader, his private school was in lock down mode as he watched the events unfold on 9/11 in New York City. As he mourned with his class, he also felt he could commemorate the victims by becoming a first responder. Three years ago, he achieved that dream when he became a Certified Wildland Firefighter for the Florida Forest Service. At his graduation ceremony, he knew his hard work and persistence had paid off. That incredible feeling of accomplishment fuels him to continue his education.
Ranger Smith says his hero has always been his grandfather, Edward Smith because he showed him how to be a hard worker, taught him not to get discouraged and to follow his heart and never ever give up on “the man upstairs.”
He started his working life as team member at Chick-Fil-A, Winn Dixie and Publix. Then, he tried construction, specifically plumbing, and that was one stinky job – imagine clogged septic tanks, junk stuck in sink pipes and toilets overflowing. At least the customers were happy when you showed up and fixed their problem, he said. He can’t say he has ever hated a job, maybe disliked its contents, but he mostly enjoyed them all. In 2015, he became a Forest Ranger, Firefighter/EMT.
One of the things he likes the most about working for the Florida Forest Service is his agency values fire prevention education for all ages. He likes sharing the things his father taught him and the things he has learned through his education, with others. Smokey Bear programs are his favorite; his whole crew gets excited interacting with 60 kindergarten and first graders. He says, “You wouldn’t believe how smart, funny and knowledgeable those kids are. I remember my youth and emphasize the importance that fire is a tool, not a toy.”
He also enjoys talking to adults about what you can and cannot burn. Florida’s law changed since the time his dad taught him, and now burning household items, such as plastics and paper, is prohibited. Once you take the time to explain it to people, they understand, he says.
“My hope is that they pass that knowledge on to the next generation.”