50 for 50: Station 21 - Hillsborough’s Trailblazer
This previously published story about Henry Dorsey also is part of HCFR’s 50 for 50 project. Dorsey began his career at Station 21 in Thonotosassa where, for two years, he was the only career firefighter. He often fought fires alone and almost always had to fight alone for a while until the volunteers arrived.
Dorsey said his chief told him that if he could make it in Thonotosassa, he could make it anywhere in Hillsborough County. Indeed, the department sent him all over the county during his years as a career firefighter serving in Thonotosassa, Station 10 near Carrollwood, Station 22 in Wimauma and Station 29 in Apollo Beach before finishing his career at Station 15 in Palm River.
The year was 1974, and the United States was in transition. The Civil Rights Act had outlawed segregation 10 years prior, and integration was slowly being accepted in cities and communities across the country. During this period, Tampa native Henry D. Dorsey had just completed two years in the U.S. Army and was looking for a job.
This story is part of Hillsborough County’s 50-for-50 Series, a historic review of some of the memorable events, dates, and people in the history of Hillsborough Fire Rescue, which was born on Aug. 27, 1973. Want to know more? Read additional stories that show the growth, bravery, and specialized operations of Hillsborough County’s largest department.
As fate would have it, while visiting a friend who worked for Hillsborough County, Dorsey saw two job postings listed. The first opening was in the sheriff's office, and the second was with the fire department.
Fire Department Calling
Quickly choosing the latter, Henry applied and successfully landed an interview. As Dorsey describes the hiring process, he laughs heartily. His 1970s fashion style, in his words, "made his 6-foot-4-inch frame look at least 6 feet, 8 inches tall."
The Army had instilled confidence in Dorsey. So, when he walked into the interview fully clad in platform shoes, bell bottoms, a stylish jacket, extra wide tie, and on-trend Afro hairstyle, he did so as if he had already landed the job.
After the interview and feeling assured, Dorsey left for his drive home. What met him in the parking lot, however, was a sea of 50 other men awaiting their turn. Dorsey quickly realized he was the only African American man applying for the job.
Unphased, Dorsey hoped to land the position and soon received a phone call with an offer. He officially became the first African American and member of a minority group to be hired as a Hillsborough County firefighter in November of 1974.
Blazing a Trail
In addition to the challenges he faced as an African American, Dorsey says the conditions at those first firehouses were rough. There were few amenities, no heat, or air conditioning. Dorsey and his crew would warm themselves in the winter using the stove and would cool themselves in the summer with box fans brought from home.
Dorsey persevered letting nothing hold him back. His dedication to serve the public, tenacity, and belief in himself would allow for nothing less. Within the first four months, his hard work paid off. Dorsey was promoted to Captain, becoming one of the County's first nine firefighters to earn that rank.
What is Captain Dorsey's recommendation to young people considering a Fire Rescue career? It's simple: Never stop learning and adjust with the times. And what are his words to live by? When you decide to make fire rescue a career, walk the walk every day and in all aspects of your life.
Captain Dorsey spent 35 years with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and says it was a wonderful career. According to Dorsey, he stayed for the great people he worked with and the crews he led. "When doors opened for everyone and to everyone the culture was transformed."