New fire chief was going to be a cowboy


OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Fire Rescue’s new Fire Chief Earl Wooten II says he really doesn’t feel any different now that he is chief.

Wooten took office officially on April 28 during Okeechobee’s first formal Change of Command Ceremony. This was also the first time an incoming chief came from within the ranks of the department.

As deputy chief, he has covered for former Chief Ralph Franklin many times over the years, and right now, it just feels like Franklin is away but will be returning, Wooten explained.

The new chief was born and raised in West Palm Beach where his dad, Earl Wooten Sr., was a firefighter. When Wooten was in eighth grade, the family moved to Okeechobee, but his father continued to work for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, commuting back and forth.

“My dad decided to leave the hustle and bustle, and we moved to Buckhead Ridge, but he wanted to stay with his department.” He and his siblings rode the school bus back and forth to Moore Haven every day. “Back then, you had to pay to go to Okeechobee schools if you lived in Buckhead, because it is in Glades County. My mom and dad said they couldn’t afford to do that, so we rode the bus 30 miles there and 30 miles back every day.”

When Wooten was a senior in high school, the rules changed, but he decided to continue with Moore Haven and graduate with his friends. After he graduated, his sister and brother transferred to Okeechobee schools.

During high school and after, he worked at a ranch. "I was going to be a cowboy," he said. 

He later worked for Big Lake Wholesale with Stevie Weeks. “I always said I would never be a firefighter,” said Wooten. Weeks talked him into volunteering for the city fire department though, and he fell in love with it. He went to school and worked for the city for about a year, filling in as needed when someone was hurt or just not able to work, before moving to the county fire rescue when they had an opening for full time. He started with Okeechobee County Fire Rescue on Jan. 13, 2000.

His dad was happy he joined but encouraged him to stay in Okeechobee. He has a little over 23 years in now and moved up through the ranks.

He said he enjoys helping people. It is a family tradition. His brother works for Highlands County as a firefighter, and their grandfather was a law enforcement officer.

“It can be a hard life,” he said. “You are away from home so much and miss so many things while working shifts.”

In Okeechobee, they work 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off then 24 hours on and 96 hours off.

He said in his former position as deputy chief, he was in charge of operations, and when covid came along, it was like nothing he had ever seen in his life. “I had to come up with different ideas on how to deal with this, how to deal with that. There were times we had an entire station out because of the way the CDC recommendations were then.”

His family is very proud of him and all he has accomplished.

Wooten’s mother Mary said, “Earl II has always been interested in the fire service. At an early age he was with his dad, and they came across a traffic accident. He helped with the baby that was involved in the accident until the fire department arrived on scene. That was all he needed to know to that firefighting was what he wanted to get involved in. He was first a volunteer until he was hired. He took as many classes as he could to learn all he could about the fire service and the rest is history. He is also involved with Forestry and goes to the large wildfires out west when needed. His dad also did that after he retired from Palm Beach County. I am so proud of him. I just wish his dad was still here to see him as chief. I know he’s watching over him.”

His daughter Mariah said, “Yesterday my dad was sworn in & officially became the Fire Chief of Okeechobee County Fire Rescue. He is the most hardworking, honest, goal oriented, and driven man I’ve ever met. I know he will thrive in his new role! I am so proud to be your daughter.”

Wooten’s wife LaDonna said, “He has worked so hard for the last 23 years and I couldn’t think of someone more deserving. He has taken every class, training, and learning opportunity that comes his way. I am extremely proud of him and am honored to stand by his side as his wife.”

Daughter Shelby said, “Just wanted to say how proud I really am of you. I love you dad and am glad to call you my padre.”

Not only is Wooten fire chief, but he is also director of public safety. Soon, he will be selecting his own deputy, and this person will most likely train to take over as chief one day.

When Wooten is not working, he enjoys outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing with his family. In addition to daughters Mariah and Shelby, the Wootens also have a 9-year-old son.