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Firefighters share 20-year fire service journey leading to Longboat

Assistant chiefs Jentzen Barton and Martin Szalbirak served in multiple fire departments together, and now find themselves taking a new step on the Key.

Asst. Chief Martin Szalbirak and Asst. Chief Jentzen Barton.
Asst. Chief Martin Szalbirak and Asst. Chief Jentzen Barton.
Courtesy image
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Longboat Key Fire Rescue firefighters Martin Szalbirak and Jentzen Barton have a lot in common, but they differ on one important matter of taste.

Szalbirak is a “Swiftie,” and Barton prefers Celine Dion. But at their core, both are dedicated to fire service, and the two have worked together for almost 20 years.

Barton, 42, and Szalbirak, 49, are both assistant chiefs with Longboat Key Fire Rescue. Barton started in June, and Szalbirak took the job a little over a year ago.

Both started as volunteers when they were in their 20s with the Nokomis Volunteer Fire Department. They moved up the ranks together, spending almost 20 years in North Port before making their way to Longboat Key.

For them, public service was in their blood.

Szalbirak has a wife in the medical field and a brother who retired as a Sarasota County detective. Now, his son is following in his fire service footsteps.

Barton didn’t have relatives in the fire service, but it was something he always knew he wanted to do.

When people would ask what he wanted to be when he grew up, the answer was always the same: a firefighter.

“I’m a first generation,” Barton said. “When they say it’s in your blood, I truly think that.”

As a kid, he remembers watching the local fire department conducting training, and one time when the department brought trucks to the elementary school to let the kids try the hoses.

He was hooked.

Journey men

Fire service wasn’t of any interest to Szalbirak at first. He had his focus on becoming an emergency medical technician and attended school for that.

At EMT school, Szalbirak was enticed to volunteer at Nokomis in 1994. Medical calls in the area were made through fire departments, so he realized he needed to give the fire side of things a shot. 

“Once I started doing it, and with school, I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool,’” Szalbirak said. 

Szalbirak then moved to North Port Fire Rescue in 1996, before Barton began volunteering at Nokomis in 1999.

Barton spent a total of five years at Nokomis, where he was also born and raised. 

After Barton's time at Nokomis, he worked in fire rescue in Punta Gorda for two years before making the move to North Port. 

That’s when he met Szalbirak, who was his journeyman. 

A journeyman is like the master in a master-apprentice relationship. The program requires 7,000 hours of training in which Barton learned from Szalbirak the ins and outs of all the buildings in North Port.

“At the time, you think, ‘What a jerk,’” Barton said. “But you look back at something like that, and that means a lot. … You can take the easy route or the hard route. And (Szalbirak) kind of held my feet to the fire on things that other apprentices probably weren’t required to know.”

Together, Barton and Szalbirak were also a part of the Emergency Services Leadership Institute, which sent them traveling across the state for training events for a year.

They also both worked on their college degrees around the same time, which allowed them to move up in the ranks and earn officer positions. 

Barton became a lieutenant in North Port for 14 years, and spent a total of 20 years there. Szalbirak spent 26 years at North Port and was an officer for 15 of those years.

Szalbirak said he was going to retire about a year ago, when the job at Longboat Key Fire Rescue came up. He already had a solid foundation with Dezzi, meeting him early in his fire service career, when he was in his 20s.

Ealier this year, Szalbirak gave Barton a heads-up that there was an opening at Longboat Key. In June, Barton was a part of the Longboat Key crew.

For both Barton and Szalbirak, coming to Longboat Key was the right decision for where they were at in their careers. 

“I just felt like it was a smart decision and a good career move to get off the firetruck and start doing a little more of the administrative side of things,” Barton said. “It’s not as busy as North Port, and there is nowhere near as much craziness. But I’m OK with that. I’ve been there, done that.”

Cool careers 

Now at Longboat Key, Barton is an assistant chief focusing more on the fire side of the department, whereas Szalbirak focuses more on the medical side.

Each assistant chief works on 24-hour shifts and acts as sort of a “buffer” for Chief Paul Dezzi, said both Szalbirak and Barton. They work closely with personnel and handle day-to-day operations.

Their days are a mix of administrative work and hands-on work responding to major calls, such as gas leaks, water rescues and structure fires.

Martin Szalbirak and Jentzen Barton have progressed through fire service together since the 1990s.
Courtesy image

For Szalbirak, daily tasks involve keeping personnel up to date and purchasing new automated external defibrillators for all town-owned locations. Similarly, Barton handles budgets and purchase orders, as well as making sure his crew is up to speed.

“We want to make sure that all the firefighters and lieutenants have all the tools they need to do their job,” Szalbirak said.

Barton said there's no room for error in Szalbirak’s role on the EMS side.

“So if you notice he’s a little thin up top, that’s why,” Barton said, joking about Szalbirak’s hair.

Szalbirak and Barton don’t see each other too much since they work different 24-hour shifts, but the jokester texting is daily, Barton said.

Living in Venice with his wife and two kids, Barton takes a lot of early morning drives to get to Longboat Key.

He said it’s not that bad, though. With a fresh cup of coffee and Celine Dion playing in the background, Barton enjoys the beachy drive.

When he’s not at the station, Barton plays golf occasionally. But he spends most of his time off with his kids, having father-daughter dates, or playing videogames with his son.

Szalbirak is a cruise enthusiast and more of a Taylor Swift fan. He takes frequent trips either on the water or in the mountains of Georgia. He’s also a big “foodie,” favoring Thai food above all else.

His son volunteers with Nokomis Fire Department and works for Sarasota County Fire Department.

Coming to Longboat Key was a big switch for both Szalbirak and Barton. Even though he was close to retiring a little over a year ago, Szalbirak is now in the opposite direction.

“I still love coming in,” Szalbirak said. “And I still don’t have any plans on leaving, so I’ll be here as long as they have me.” 

Aside from the views of the beach, what keeps both of them around are the people, both around the station and on the Key. 

Barton and Szalbirak find excitement in the spontaneity, and problem-solving of the job. 

“Our whole careers, we show up and we fix things,” Szalbirak said. “We fix things for people, whether it's their health, getting them up the stairs, getting them out of a car, peeling them out of my car. We find a mess and we make it better.”



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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