City fire captain disputes claim of cost per call

“I don’t know where he got those figures, but they are wrong,” said Capt.Lalo Rodriguez of the Okeechobee Fire Department. He was speaking of the numbers quoted by Frank Irby at the Oct. 15 city council meeting when Mr. Irby encouraged the council to consolidate the city and county fire departments. Mr. Irby said if they would look at the fire study done in 2017, they would see the typical call volume in the city was 651 calls per year. If you take those 651 calls and divide $1.3 million, it breaks down to a cost of $2,000 per call.

The problem with that, said Capt. Rodriguez, is that the numbers quoted by Mr. Irby were not correct. In 2017, he said, they ran 1,691 calls. He went on to add, in 2014, they ran 1,349 calls, and in 2015 had 1,366. In 2016 there were 1,363 and in 2018, there were 1,518. That gives them an average of 1,457 calls per year.

“I don’t understand where he got the 651 calls,” he said. “I’m not sure what fire study he is talking about. He did not ask us for any figures, but he is more than welcome to come to the station and ask us if he wants to know anything about our calls or our volume. As a matter of fact, anyone can come in and talk to us about it. We would love to answer any questions the public has.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
City firefighters saved a local citizen from choking.

Since that meeting, Capt. Rodriguez has had people walk up to him and quote those figures as if they are facts. They say, “It costs $2,000 per call for you to go out?” The answer to that question, he says is, “Absolutely not!” Not only did he divide by the wrong number of calls, but the per-call estimate quoted at the meeting did not add in the other things the fire department does to serve the community, he said.

The numbers do not include inspections, pre-fire plans, events they go help with in the park (they have a golf cart along with water and refreshments because a lot of times it is hot at the events, and we have a lot of older people in our community and they offer them water), public education (they go to schools and daycares and teach children about fire safety, hand out school supplies, do a puppet show, let them see the fire truck and spray water), and help with traffic control during school hours and events at the ag center.

Last year, they worked with the Red Cross to replace smoke detectors in mobile homes in the River Bend mobile home park, free of charge. Red Cross supplied the alarms, and the fire department and Red Cross went in to install them.

“Our department is there for the community,” he said. “It doesn’t help when the numbers are wrong, and people are informed miscalculated numbers.”

They also run on mutual aid calls with the county, and in 2017, they ran 53 times. This means the county calls them to help with one of their calls. On average, that’s one time per week when they go out into the county to assist them on a call, and just recently, Chief Ralph Franklin wanted to revise the contract with their department. Under the old contract, they only went to calls within a 2-mile radius outside the city unless there were extreme circumstances. Under the new contract, they can be called for assistance anywhere in the county for any type of fire. This will help with ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings, he said, because it’s reciprocal. The county helps them within the city. If there is no longer a city department, the ISO ratings will more than likely go up, he said, and if your ISO rating goes up, so does your insurance cost. By helping each other, they keep the ratings down. ISO says they want a certain number of personnel at a fire within a certain amount of time, and that is where having two departments in the same area helps. If you do away with the city department, Okeechobee County will have to depend on another county for assistance, he said.

The Okeechobee city firefighters would like your support, said Capt. Rodriguez. Right now, their morale has taken a beating. They don’t know if they should be out applying for jobs or if they should hang in there. Chief Franklin told them they were welcome to apply for jobs, but they believe it is very unlikely all 12 of them will be hired.

“A lot of people think we are just at the station napping until we get a call,” he said. “That’s not the case. We still have to train. We do computer work, EMS courses online. The city fire department is a basic life support department. The county is advanced life support and does the transport for them.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “three individuals got awards at the city council meeting last night. Lt. Glenn Hodges, Firefighter Les McGee and Firefighter David Cortez helped saved a local resident from choking. Of course, OCFR helped, too, as soon as they got there.”

Capt. Rodriguez said if you own a business, you might want to check into what businesses in the county pay on their fire assessment tax because if the consolidation goes through, you will pay your taxes to the city plus you will have a fire assessment tax to the county. He added that churches in the county do pay the county fire assessment. Churches in the city do not pay taxes, he said.

On Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. at the Historic Okeechobee Courthouse in the county commission chambers, there will be a workshop to discuss the consolidation of the two departments, he said. This would be a great time to come out and ask questions and give your opinion. The city council will make this decision. There will be no vote as it is not an official meeting.

“Our department has been here for over 100 years,” Capt. Rodriguez said. “I’d hate to see it go away.”

Mr. Irby said he got the numbers directly from the fire rescue assessment done by Burton & Associates in the fiscal year of 2017. It was paid for by the city. He has no idea why the numbers would be so different but could only assume the numbers in that assessment would have been accurate, he said, and really those numbers aren’t that important. The numbers people should be thinking about are the $1.3 million that it costs to run the fire department and they should keep in mind that the same 10,000-square-foot building costs $3,300 when funded through a fire fee and only $1,100 if the county assesses a fire tax. Another plus, he said would be seeing the ad valorem rate go from 0.007 to 0.0045 or less.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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