With a background in accounting and law, Maurice Gilbert was attending South Walton Fire Board meetings in 1997 trying to share his expertise and be a positive voice.

"There was a lot of controversy and financial troubles in the fire department at that time," Gilbert said.

When one of the fire commissioners did not want to serve any longer and resigned mid-term, the remaining commissioners voted to appoint Gilbert to fill the position. He became chairman the next year in 1998 and has been there ever since.

At their February meeting, South Walton Fire Commissioners presented Gilbert with a plaque commemorating his 20 years of service to SWFD as a member of the board of directors and an elected fire commissioner. He has been elected five times to serve four-year terms -- the most ever.

"I felt a need to serve, to stabilize the financial situation," he said.

At that time there were only 15 firefighters. SWFD now has 178 employees and the organization has expanded into beach operations, overseeing beach safety and lifeguard programs, and control of emergency medical services, now boasting five ambulances.

"Chief Talbert is recognized as one of the top fire chiefs in the state, and many of our people are involved in community service. It's a very professional group and I am proud to serve with them," said Gilbert.

Gilbert has seen a lot of changes during his 20 years with SWFD.

"South Walton has grown and there has been a need to stay ahead of the curve," he said.

He has been part of the board that has seen the hiring of two fire chiefs during the 20 years and there are now five fire houses. There were only three when he was first appointed. The ones at WaterColor and Mack Bayou have been added during his tenure. The one at Inlet Beach one existed, but has been expanded.

In 1998, SWFD headquarters was located on County Road 393S where Habitat For Humanity's Restore is currently located. The modern headquarters on 393N was constructed several years ago and ground has just been broken to build a new maintenance and training facility behind it.

In January, 11 fire calls and 339 medical calls were received.

"We try to keep response time under eight minutes, which keeps insurance costs down for homeowners," he said. "We try to keep our fire rating up. We have one of the best programs in northwest Florida."

What he is proudest of, though, is the addition of so many highly-qualified people who want to serve on the board.

"We have a fire board that is excellent, made up of outstanding people in the community. We're fortunate to have this type of board," he said.

SWFD Fire Board meet the second Monday of each month at 4 p.m. at the headquarters building on CR 393N.