Thomas Free’s life forever changed one December day in 2015 when he pulled out of the Safety Harbor Fire Department station house, a routine turn he had made countless times during his nine years on the job. But on this day, a car blew through a red light and slammed into him, crushing the vehicle just 50 feet from the station.
After a decade of saving victims from harrowing situations as an EMT and firefighter, Free was now rescued by his colleagues and rushed to the hospital with his own life on the line.
He survived, only to suffer a near-fatal, massive pulmonary embolism three weeks later, stemming from the accident. This time, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) from St. Petersburg’s Fire Department and a Sunstar ambulance team kept him alive. After recovering, the St. Petersburg College alum decided to show his appreciation for all the public safety training the college offers by giving back to the program.
His recovery was grueling. “My lung capacity was so limited that I could only walk seven feet without stopping, and I couldn’t walk and talk at the same time,” he recalls. “It took six months before I could walk a mile without being a mess.”
Small wonder that Free would eventually show his gratitude to the paramedic and firefighting profession he loved so much and to the institution that opened the door for him in the first place – St. Petersburg College.
It was at SPC that Free received his EMT certificate, a prerequisite for attending the school’s Firefighting Academy. And he’s felt a strong bond with SPC ever since, reflected in generous support of SPC’s first-responder programs. In 2011, Free made his initial gift to the SPC Foundation by establishing the EMS Scholarship for EMT and Paramedic Programs, providing financial assistance to students interested in pursuing training as EMTs, paramedics or firefighters.
Then came a most unusual, yet highly beneficial, gesture in 2019. St. Petersburg College needed to upgrade the fire truck used for training in its academy. The older truck was out of date, forcing students to get additional training once they graduated and landed work with a fire department. As it happened, the City of Largo had recently purchased a new truck and was in the process of selling its older one.
Upon hearing the situation, Free moved into action with the decisiveness that marked his two years on the job as a volunteer firefighter in Hillsborough County and near decade with Safety Harbor. He paid for the remaining cost of the fire engine, paving the way for SPC students to learn on the latest equipment.
“I very much appreciate the fact that St. Petersburg College allowed me to become a firefighter and paramedic,” Free says. “And to be able to offer somebody else an opportunity to get that training means a lot to me. It’s the greatest job I ever had.”