Fire department merger questioned

OKEECHOBEE — Should the city ask the county to take over fire protection services? The Okeechobee City Council is considering that option, as a way to reduce taxes for city residents. What would it mean for the city? What would it mean for the county?

At the Nov. 26 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, County Fire/Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin provided some of the information requested by city officials.

Chief Franklin said City Fire Department currently has 13 employees including the chief and an administrative secretary. If the county takes over fire protection in the city limits, the fire/rescue would need to add a minimum of seven positions, he estimated.

Chief Franklin said the information presented is preliminary and may change as some issues have not been determined including acquisition of capital items and equipment, and storage of reserve equipment.

How many calls has the county fire/rescue responded to within the city limits?
In 2017, county fire/rescue responded to 1,290 calls within the city limits; the city fire department responded to 1,510 calls. In 2018, the county fire/rescue responded to 1,220 calls within the city limits. The city responded to 1,519 calls.

Chief Franklin said the county response numbers are mostly EMS calls.

In 2017, 46 of the calls fire/rescue responded to within the city limits were classified as fire calls. Seventeen of those calls involved use of the ALS engine. In 2018, fire/rescue responded to 38 fire calls; 17 of those calls involved use of the ALS engine.

All of our engines are paramedic engines, said Chief Franklin. The use of the ALS engine on a city call means the ambulance was busy at the time, or the patient’s condition required an additional paramedic under fire/rescue protocol.

What is the current fire/rescue staffing?
Current fire/rescue daily staff is a maximum of 16 people per shift, and a minimum of 14, Chief Franklin continued. Fire/Rescue has a total of 48 employees.

Four ambulances are staffed with two people, one must be a paramedic. Three engines are staffed with two people. Since these are paramedic engines, at least one person must be a paramedic.

The dispatch protocol requires one engine and one ambulance be sent to a traffic accident or car fire. For non-critical medical calls, one ambulance is dispatched. For critical medical calls (such as chest pain or child birth), one ambulance and one engine is dispatched.

For a residential building fire, units dispatched include two county engines, one city engine, two ambulances and at least one county command staff officer. If water hydrants are not available, a tanker is sent.

For a commercial building fire, two county engines, two ambulances, one city aerial and at least one county staff officer are dispatched.

How many calls has the city responded to in the county?
From Oct. 31, 2018 to Oct. 31, 2019, the city responded to 31 calls outside the city limits to assist fire/rescue.

Will a merger impact ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings?
“One of things to understand is that without Auto-Aid, ISO does not give credit for responding staff or apparatus coming to your aid. The Auto-Aid must be jurisdiction-wide. It cannot be limited to certain geographical areas. The previous agreement was the city responded automatically to us within two miles outside the city limits, so we really didn’t get credit for that,” he explained.

For structure fires within the city, the county sends a minimum of eight personnel with one command officer. For structure fires within the county, the city sends two firefighters. When this occurs, the county moves an engine into the city to provide more coverage during the incident, he explained. He said ISO ratings are based on evaluations with a point system: Emergency communications – 10 points; fire department activities- 50 points; and, water supply – 40 points.

Community risk reduction activities are treated as bonus points worth 5.5 points. Under the current system, both departments were rated as a “3.” On the last evaluation, county fire/rescue earned 77.17 points; the city fire department had 74.28 points.

To maintain current rating if the departments merge, a number of things must be done, said Chief Franklin. Reserve apparatus must be stored out of the weather. “If we move additional apparatus into Station #1 it will displace some of the reserve apparatus stored there now,” he explained. To maintain the current rating, the department must complete inspections or preplan inspections on a minimum of 50% of all businesses. In addition, on a year basis, each employee must have 192 hours of training with four hours of driving; must have 18 hours at a certified training facility, must have six hours of hazardous materials training. In addition, to maintain the current ISO training, the department must have a minimum of three engines in service for fire flow requirements and must be able to supply 200 gallons per minute for 20 minutes (for a total of 4,000 gallons). The county engines carry 1,500 gallons on average. This created the need for the Auto Aid and the tanker response policy. In addition, the department must have a minimum of 14.25 people on duty at all times, after factoring in vacation, sick leave and holidays.

The current Auto-Aid policy would expire if the departments merge.

The ISO rating also requires the department keep current dispatch standards, keep hydrant inspection and flow testings as well as annual testing of the pumps, ladders and hose. (The county has a contractor to perform ladder and hose testing.)

Chief Franklin said there is potential for the ISO rating to improve due to additional prevention staffing to conduct inspections and additional numbers of firefighters available to respond to a fire scene. He noted that although the ISO is likely to improve with the merger, the impact on insurance rates would be minimal.

What are the current standards for employment for fire/rescue?
Chief Franklin said current standards for employment by the county include:
• Certified Firefighter and EMT (Paramedic preferred);
• Pass Fire Team written aptitude test;
• Pass a physical abilities test from one of two vendors;
• Background, reference, and Driver’s License check;
• Pass a NFPA compliant medical examination; and,
• Approval of the county administrator.
He said bonus points are given to applicants who are local residents.

How many people does the city have in the fire unit?
The City of Okeechobee Fire Department currently has 13 employees including: one fire chief, one administrative assistant, and 11 field firefighters (10 are firefighter/EMTs, one is a firefighter/paramedic.)

Chief Franklin said all of the current city employees meet the county standard of being a state-certified firefighter and EMT or paramedic.

What are the minimum staffing needs?
Chief Franklin said to provide service to the city limits and keep the county response time at the appropriate level, the minimum staffing required would be six people to staff a second engine at Station #1. This will be a paramedic engine. The county would also need one additional fire prevention staffer who would perform inspections, conduct public education programs and assist with plan reviews.

What is the cost to bring a city firefighter up to the standards to be on County Fire/EMS staff?
Chief Franklin explained the assumptions concerning personnel cost assume: no personal equipment transfers over; assumes 3% increase in personnel cost per year; salary includes base pay, FLSA required OT and holiday pay; based on current benefit calculations; based on starting salary in current CBA (collective bargaining agreement). It is unknown what current CBA incentives former city employees would qualify for.

He projected the cost of six staffers (three EMT, three paramedic), including cost for salary, benefits and equipment would cost $469,382 the first year; $481,527 the second year: and $470,859 the third year. That includes equipment costs of $38,200 the first year, $37,440 the second year; and, $13,440 the third year. He said the CBA requires personnel be given a second set of gear their second year.

What is the projected cost of paramedic school?
Chief Franklin said the projected cost of paramedic school for one individual to go to paramedic school at IRSC is $32,428. That includes tuition and fees of $9,128; time off to attend 768 hours of classes; and, overtime to cover shifts when that employee is away for class. The next class starts in August 2020.

Healthcare Institutes’s next class starts in January 2020. School costs for HCI are slightly lower at $7,925 in tuition and fees. Costs for time off and overtime would be the same as with IRSC classes.

He said current employees who have been with the county for a year can apply for a tuition reimbursement program. They sign a contract to work with the county for two years after that. Each month they work, it is like making a payment.

What would the fire prevention staffer cost?
Chief Franklin estimated the salary for the fire prevention staffer/inspector would cost $69,431 the first year including a salary of $38,100, benefits of $19,461; and, equipment cost of $11,870. The second year, the position would cost $61,157; the third year, $62,686. The equipment includes a computer, portable radio and other tools needed to perform inspections.

How would this impact county staff?
Chief Franklin said adding staffing would create promotions of some current OCFR staff. He said it is important to let current city employees know the importance of attending paramedic school.

One paramedic program has said they would give priority enrollment to city employees in their January 2020 class. That class is on a shift-friendly schedule. The class takes one year.

Currently the city fire department is dispatched by the city police department dispatcher. Adding firefighters to county fire/rescue to cover the city limits area could mean adding an additional dispatcher to the county sheriff’s office, which also dispatches fire/rescue.

Commissioner David Hazellief said they might need seven skilled employees, rather than six, to cover the days off for all of the shifts.

Chief Franklin said equipment is also a consideration, whether the city would transfer the fire equipment to the county. “If they transfer their current new engine over to us, then we don’t have to buy a vehicle,” he said. Commissioner Hazellief suggested the city put a price on each piece of equipment and the county could determine which items to purchase.

County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said at this point, the county needs more information from the city in regard to what they plan to do with the vehicles, equipment and the fire station.

What’s next?
More discussion of the idea is expected at the Dec. 17 meeting of the Okeechobee City Council. The issue will be back on the county commission agenda in January.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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