Thursday, January 16, 2014

EFD's Chief Scott Lane proposes Full-Time Fire Service

On Saturday, January 11th, Fire Chief Scott Lane of Englewood Fire District hosted a town hall meeting to discuss fire protection services for the Island

Bill Peterson, a member of our Island Study Group for Fire & EMS, introduced several important attendees including EFD Battalion Commander Russell McCord, three members of the Board of Fire Commissioners, a representative of the firefighters’ union and County Commissioner Bill Truex.  He also introduced the rest of the Island Study Group, including Rick Brunett, Linda Cotherman, Bob Madden, and Dick Sadenwater.

Chief Lane presented a proposal to provide full-time professional fire coverage for the Island, using 6 firefighter/EMTs working in 3 shifts, 2 per shift. 

He began by describing the system we presently have in place. As of 1/1/2012, Island coverage through EFD consists of daytime coverage (7AM – 7 PM) with professional firefighter/EMTs responding from the fire stations off-Island and nighttime coverage (7PM-7AM) with volunteer firefighters responding from Station 10 on the Island. Fully trained firefighters who work as volunteers are basically maintaining their certification while waiting for paid positions.

Chief Lane explained that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to provide volunteers for two reasons. 

1. Over the past two years, the Chief’s pool of available volunteers has been reduced by half as they found jobs, leaving less experienced volunteers coming in.  
2. In addition, there was a recent change in the certification rules.  Firefighters can simply take a 40-hour certification class instead of putting in volunteer hours.  This has also reduced the number of available volunteers.

As a result, EFD needs to pay firefighters to come out to the Island at night when they can’t cover with volunteers. They are now reaching the threshold of their budget for Island coverage.

Later in the meeting, Chief Lane made it clear that the reduced availability of experienced volunteers was not just a budget issue.  “If they can’t do the job, I’m not comfortable sending someone out to do the job.”

The Chief then presented a preliminary budget for the change.  The budget was in 2 parts: capital expenditures, which would be a one-time assessment, and operations costs (ongoing).

The capital expenditures would include a station remodeling ($120,000) and a new engine ($420,000) for a total of $540,000. This would be assessed at $341.88 per household, which could be a one-time charge for the full amount next year or spread out over a longer period.

Chief Lane explained that we have 3 pieces of equipment at the fire station, but not all of them are suitable for Island use.  He also explained that the new engine would be upgraded with foam capability and technological improvements.  Capital expenditures would also include shoring up the pilings at Station 10, putting in new flooring and a kitchen remodel.

The operations costs would be $741,000 per year.  This would break down to an annual MSBU tax of $468.29 per residential unit, $.53 per square foot for commercial and $95.00 per vacant lot.

The budget figures were prepared based on data from the tax collector’s office.  They assess the Island based on 1,454 residential units, 796 properties and 126,813 square feet of commercial property.

The number of units provided was questioned. Chief Lane said that he will confirm this information, although “improved” properties counted in the units include lots with structures such as covered boat docks, etc.  It was established that if the number of units is actually lower, the tax rates will be proportionately higher.

The ad valorum taxes that we pay to Charlotte County for protection were also questioned. Bill explained that Charlotte County collects the MSBU (non-ad valorum) taxes for fire protection and has a contract with EFD to provide fire coverage.  The ad valorum taxes that we pay to CC is for Emergency Medical Services only (ambulance and paramedics). “We don’t pay the same fire cost as the mainland” ($142 per household to CC)  “They are two different taxes, basically. Fire and EMS.”

Bill Truex spoke briefly on the County’s role. “I’m not here because CC wants to take fire service away from EFD.”  The County has a public safety mandate for medical provision. Charlotte County provides emergency medical services with professional paramedics and transport (ambulance, airlift). Firefighters from EFD that are trained as EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) provide basic medical care and stabilize while waiting for an ambulance.

Judging from the questions asked, the audience appeared uncomfortable with the substantial tax increase proposed. Questions were raised about alternatives, such as can we just replace the volunteers with paid firefighters at night, and would EFD be receptive to a “Plan B” if this proposal is not acceptable.  Chief Lane said,  “I would take it to my Board.”  When asked if the union would accept one paid FF and 1 volunteer, he said “probably not.” 

Someone asked why can’t we do daytime service (response from the mainland) at night, which would involve running the ferry full-time. “I want full time coverage for the Island” said the Chief.

“We can mitigate our risk” one Islander said, noting that single family residences are not required to have fire coverage. “It’s our choice”. Chief Lane made it clear why his recommendation is 24/7 coverage: “If there’s a fire and a person dies, I’m not willing to accept that liability.”  Commissioner Truex added “Everybody thinks about liability.  They can get sued.”

What happens if EFD will not provide fire service? Bill Peterson said that “Charlotte County is legally required to cover the Island, and they will cover us.” Asked if they will do a proposal, Bill said that will be discussed by the study group.

Commissioner Truex said that we might consider delaying the purchase of the new engine for a few years to save on the tax bill. “There are ways to chop this up and take smaller bites” he said. “The question is, at what level do you want service? EFD will say what they recommend, you have to decide what you want. If you have service that you like, then you  need to look at that very strongly.”

The Chief said that they need an answer by April 1st, when they have to indicate to CC whether they will renew the contract. If we upgrade to a full-time manned station, we will be absorbed into the fire district.  Without 24/7 coverage by on-island paid staff, Chief Lane stated he would not support continued Island coverage after the current agreement expires. However, a final decision on that would be made by the EFD commissioners. If dropped, EFD will cover until October and then Charlotte County will take over.  According to Chief Lane, “it will be up to the Island.”

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