Glades County has two firefighters, two ambulances and 9,000+ people to protect

MOORE HAVEN — Public Safety Director Bob Jones laid out all the facts about how much fire protection and emergency services protection Glades County citizens get now and could get for their money at a workshop Tuesday, April 9, for the commissioners and audience.


His department’s PowerPoint presentation contained 35 slides setting them all out.


EMS/fire protection today
The county has two ambulances, one stationed in Moore Haven and one on the west side of the county. Buckhead Ridge, which has a volunteer fire company, is covered through a special contract with Okeechobee County, for which Glades pays around $100,000 per year.


As for firemen crews, there is only one full-time, two-person crew that works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The pair are used throughout the county.


In Glades County’s West District, there are volunteer stations in Muse and Ortona, which serve those two communities and Port LaBelle along State Road 80 to Indian Hills and along SR 78 to the Wayman Road area.


The Glades County Central District’s response zone is Moore Haven and Palmdale, from U.S. 27 at the Hendry County line to the Highlands County line/Wayman Road; also along SR 78 to Curry Island and Indian Hills.


The Glades County East District’s zone covers Lakeport and Buckhead Ridge from Curry Island to the Okeechobee County line at the Kissimmee River and in the Rucks Dairy area.


Each district provides coverage if necessary to the others; there also are mutual aid agreements with several neighboring counties and districts. The number of volunteers total within Glades County at present is 20: seven in the West District; seven in the Central; and six in the East.


Major concerns and funding
Mr. Jones listed these items: Long response times. Not enough personnel. No response at all to fires, car wrecks, brush fires, etc., in some cases. Not enough training. Equipment maintenance.


He said SAFER Program grants (that stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) are available through the federal government (FEMA) that help finance local fire departments’ improvements. Their intent is “to assist … with staffing and deployment capabilities in order to respond to emergencies and (so that) communities have adequate protection from fire and related hazards.”


The application period for 2019 has passed; it was February through March 22, with all awards announced by September. Some $350 million is available for this program.


SAFER provides for the hiring of firefighters and the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. It allows career, volunteer and combination departments to apply.


Mr. Jones said he believed it to be almost certain that Glades County would qualify for help because the highest priorities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the program is to assist departments with “high turnover and below ideal staffing levels” — which describes this rural county to a “T.”


However, he emphasized that the SAFER grants may only be used for volunteer firefighters who are involved in or train in both firefighting and emergency response operations, explaining that there’s an immediate 90-day recruitment period after the grant is approved, and then a recruitment-and-retention (R&R) period of performance measured between 12 and 48 months out.


Documentation is crucial
Director Jones also stated that the county’s application would be required to have detailed and specific justification for the need and how the grant would help with R&R; and it would mean the hiring of an R&R coordinator, program manager, grant administrator and marketing program.


Glades County is able to document its needs fairly thoroughly; however, updated population statistics would be needed since the previous study was done five years ago. That’s what Commissioners Donna Storter Long and Donald Strenth have pushed; it would cost about $7,500.


The SAFER grants would finance 75% of the actual cost in the first and second years of the grant, and 35% in the third year; afterward, the county would need an ongoing financing mechanism in place, which is why an MSBU is being considered.


But projects, activities or line items that are already covered under the department’s normal operating budget are not eligible. That is a serious concern for County Board Chairman Tim Stanley, Vice Chairman Weston Pryor and Commissioner John Ahern, who constitute a majority of the commission.


Mr. Stanley suggested at the workshop that they explore forming or expanding agreements with neighboring Hendry, Lee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties and with locally established fire districts, forgo an MSBU setup and simply increase the county’s millage to provide more funding; however, it already sits at about 91 percent of the maximum state-allowed property tax rate for county governments. One reason for that is more than 50 percent of the county’s land is not on the tax roll.


Other grants are available to help equip the fire stations with bunker gear, which costs approximately $2,200 for each firefighter.


Mr. Jones’ presentation also included information about how the county’s recruitment efforts have fallen flat. To reinforce the point, he cited the International Fire Chiefs Association’s statement: “We have a crisis on our hands. Volunteers are down 10% from 1984 through 2015. Local ranks of volunteers are getting older, with the percentage who are 50 and older rising at an alarming rate. There is no quick fix.”


Mr. Jones estimated the costs of equipping six staff for one station, including a paramedic with 24/7 coverage at $596,666 per year; 13 staff with two paramedics for two stations at $973,463; 18 staff, three shift officers, nine paramedics and two staff per station for three firehouses at $1.484 million; and 24 staff, three shift officers and 12 paramedics for four stations at $1.88 million.


Those figures were not reduced by the current general fund fire budget or the Okeechobee contract that covers Buckhead Ridge, he noted.


Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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