Glades County Board workshop on fire protection

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Glades County Board met for a workshop after its regular meeting Tuesday, Jan. 8, and Commissioner Donna Storter Long sent an email out the next day, announcing that: “At popular request, I am resuming my email sharing of my notes from Glades County Commission meetings.” We are publishing her notes, edited only for grammar and style, from that discussion, as the regular reporter was unable to be present for the workshop. Her own personal comments are inside quotation marks at the end.

MOORE HAVEN — The board reconvened at 10:50 for the advertised workshop to discuss fire protection services and assessment of funding to provide it.

Public Safety Director [PSD] Bob Jones narrated a Power Point presentation outlining the purpose, goals, data components and apportionment methodology of MSBU [Municipal Services Benefit Unit that is NOT based on taxable ad valorem] to provide level of services needed for adequate fire protection services in Glades County.

For years, Glades County has been dependent on volunteers to operate the fire trucks and equipment to suppress fires. The county is divided into three districts: east, central and west. East District covers Buckhead Ridge and Lakeport and has eight volunteers including Fire Chief Jack Bayless; Central District includes City of Moore Haven, Washington Park and surrounding contiguous areas, Palmdale, and Indian Hills and Horseshoe Acres, with seven volunteers including Fire Chief John Biggs; West District includes the Glades County portions of Port LaBelle and North LaBelle, and Muse and Ortona, with five volunteers including Fire Chief Jimmy Summeralls.

Currently, the county has two paid F2-level firefighter employees (who are also EMTs — Emergency Medical Technicians) that work five-day M-F 40-hour weeks and rotate around the county trying to maintain the vehicles and equipment stored at county fire stations in Buckhead Ridge, Lakeport, Moore Haven and Ortona. Because of lack of available personnel, the stations in Palmdale and Indian Hills were disbanded, and Hurricane Irma destroyed the firehouse in Muse.

It must be noted that fire safety standards require, at a minimum, two F1-level trained firefighters to enter a burning structure with two F1s outside. Therefore, Glades County is still very dependent on volunteers and mutual aid from areas outside the county. We cannot contain structure fires without volunteer assistance. Volunteers must be F1 firefighters to comply with law and liability requirements, but F1s cannot be employed full-time.

The average time from dispatch call to employee-manned fire trucks exiting the station is two minutes; but, the average time for volunteers to be located, contacted and leave their homes/jobs and go to a county fire station and exit to the fire scene is 20 minutes. That is precious time that may mean significant damage or loss of property and even lives. Many times, firefighters are dispatched to automobile accidents because of threat of fire involving fuel.

Muse has more population than Buckhead Ridge — which is comprised of lot-block subdivisions with homesite parcels, not acreage — but Muse’s geographical area is much larger and in places quite sparsely populated. Muse has no fire department and firefighters first to arrive at fires in Muse are from the LaBelle Fire Department, whose chief is Josh Rimes, a resident of Glades County who attended this workshop, providing valuable input. Currently, the remainder of the demolished fire station in Muse is waiting on the contractor to begin construction of a modified version that will house equipment only.

Palmdale citizens know full well the great loss due to fire when in October 2016, the Palmdale Cracker Store burned to the ground. Because of stringent state laws and liability, well-meaning citizens cannot operate fire suppression equipment with no certified training. Firefighter training is strenuous mentally, time-consuming and physically demanding. Many willing people cannot pass the physical requirements.

Glades County’s Public Safety 2018 Volunteer of the Year, Bill Matchekosky, corroborated PSD Jones’s statements that many times volunteers are just not available, and that he (Bill) and Ray cannot begin to cover every fire every time as volunteers. Fire Training Specialist Neal Chapman has given much of his time training volunteers to obtain F1 status. But now there are no applicants, and the numbers have been dwindling for years.

For fiscal year 2018-19, $380,000 in funding for fire protection services is budgeted through the general fund. There are no reserves set aside to replace aging fire trucks, and the last one purchased is financed. Volunteers are paid $25 per fire call, $10 per first response call, and $2 for each mandatory Fire Department meeting they attend. Sometimes, the employers of volunteer firefighters do not dock their pay when they are called out to a fire, but self-employed people have no such benefit. They truly are civic-minded.

Currently, 5,103 habitable dwelling and commercial units in Glades County finance the general fund, so that’s about $78 per unit. However, if exempt, non-taxable units are considered (including those below exemption values), each taxpayer is actually paying considerably more.

Commercial and industrial buildings have different building fire codes than single-family homes, and some even require overhead sprinkler systems. But even with their own built-in fire suppression systems, commercial enterprises stand to lose a lot more investment to a fire than a homeowner, and they will also suffer income loss pending repairs and replacement even without a total loss scenario and with full insurance coverage.

That leads to another point. Casualty loss fire insurance rates in areas without full-time fire departments is as much as 30 percent to more than 50 percent higher than areas with full-time fire departments. Commissioner Donald Strenth provided quotes from Southern Fidelity Insurance Co. that quoted coverage on the same residential values with ISO Protection Services ratings from PC1 to PC10 that exhibited this rate range.

County Attorney Richard Pringle represents eight fire districts in other counties, and he concurred with Commissioner Strenth and made it very clear that commercial businesses are not prone to develop in areas without full fire protection. [Reasons named in the last two paragraphs validate this statement.] Glades County’s economic growth needs more than just property tax abatement, which so far has not proved to be a stimulus. The limitation of inadequate fire services needs to be mitigated to make our county attractive to desirable business growth.

Some Glades County residents in Muse have not been able to obtain or continue fire insurance on their homes and other dwellings, because of no fire protection.

Glades County has in the past considered adopting an ordinance to fund our fire services through an MSBU. In order to do so, we must procure the services of a specialty consultant to determine exactly what it will cost to implement full-time fire protection and what level of service would be considered adequate. We know that our current service of two paid 40-hour, five-day-a-week employee firefighters cannot provide adequate service.

The consultant will also configure the minimum funding rates to provide the level of service desired. Funds collected through an MSBU for fire services cannot be expended for any other purpose.

PSD Jones had compiled figures for the personal services of six F2-level firefighters for three daily shifts, 24/7/365 in two-man crews per station. Keep in mind we now only have one shift per day.

To provide personal services in one fire station, including six personnel for three two-man shifts per day, including salaries, payroll taxes, health insurance, holiday pay, uniforms, retirement, miscellaneous supplies, equipment under $1,000 each, and funding for fuel, R&M and stipends for volunteers still needed, we are looking at $515,000 or about $100 per taxpayer unit (remember, it’s now about $78 for the two firefighters only on one shift M-F). Two such fire stations would cost approximately $168 per year, three would be $236 per year, four would be $304 per year and five would be $373.

The number of full-time stations equates to level of service. At a minimum, we would always have firefighters on call, but how many and where stationed would still impact response times.

Commissioner Tim Stanley [board chairman] stated he would not support an MSBU if his Buckhead Ridge constituents did not want it; he said they have a volunteer fire department (but no firemen on duty around the clock) and have backup from the Okeechobee Fire Department. He also said he felt even if we manned five full-time stations, some wouldn’t want to pay for something they would not get.

Attorney Pringle refuted the notion that increased fire services would not benefit everyone. The level of service provided would determine how much everyone benefits, but every dwelling and building would benefit with 24/7 fire services in shorter response time if nothing else, not to mention saving homes and buildings in proximity by preventing spread even if a house fire has escalated. Fire does not take a vacation. It does not strike when convenient for suppression. Fire destroys, consumes. Some things are valuable and or irreplaceable, and a price cannot be placed on human injury or death. Neal Chapman stated that F2 Firefighters have [as EMTs] saved lives assessing call scenes and arriving before medical help was summoned.

The next official step for the BoCC is to post RFP [a request for proposal] for consultant to offer services to determine goals of service level, data components, and apportionment methodology, and to quote their price for providing this service. No action was taken at this workshop.

PSD Jones was directed to come back at the Jan. 28 meeting with a line item by line item budget estimate for full costs of operating multiple fire stations using the current budget chart of accounts so the BoCC can compare “apples to ap-ples.” Depreciation and insurance are not direct expenses, but other expenses such utilities, building supplies and maintenance, are.

City of LaBelle Fire Chief Josh Rimes told the board that Hendry County has two MSBU districts for fire services and that the Clewiston-east county area pays $65 per year, and LaBelle-west county area pays $50 per year. In LaBelle, part time F1 volun-teers a paid $10 per hour stipend to man the station daily.

Public input is invited and appreciated at our regular BoCC meetings, so if you have questions and concerns, I urge you to attend the next meeting. You may also contact any commissioner.

The above are my notes. These are my comments:

“Fire/rescue services are so much more than driving a fire truck and spraying water.

“Food for thought…

“Residents in the City of Okeechobee pay 108.15 per year fire services.

“Highlands County/Venus residents pay $108.16 per year for fire services.

“Highlands County/Sebring residents pay $115 per year for fire services.

“Highlands County/Lake Placid residents pay $108.40 per year for fire services.

“Lee County/Lehigh Acres residents pay $332.15 per year for fire services.

“Lee County/Alva residents pay 3 mills, based on value: A $100,000 home would pay $300.

“Residents in the City of Cape Coral pay $222.79 per year for fire services.”

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