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Brooksville reaches out to county as issues mount at city Fire Department

By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
County Administrator Len Sossamon told commissioners that he and Deputy Administrator Jeff Rogers have been exchanging emails and calls with Interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner and that they did not yet know what kind of fire and rescue leadership assistance the city might want.

BROOKSVILLE — With a depleted staff and facing the loss of a fire chief and captain who have been arrested on fraud charges, Brooksville Interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner reached out to Hernando County last month, exploring ways to bolster the city’s Fire Department.

The county has responded with plenty of discussion, concerns about reimbursement and liability, and a continued commitment to assist the city in ways it always has.

In emails and phone calls to county administration, Bonner sought information about how much it would cost the city to have Hernando County Fire Rescue personnel step into leadership and other open positions in Brooksville while the city regroups after the arrest of former Chief David Freda, who has been fired, and Capt. David Murdock, who has been placed on paid leave.

Their arrests on fraud charges stem from their time as fire chiefs at the defunct Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department. A third former Hernando Beach chief, Travis Morris, was also arrested.

Since the late September arrests, the city’s firefighters union has raised concerns about the experience level of the remaining staff at the Brooksville station. In recent years, the department has had a high turnover rate, and Freda brought several young firefighters to Brooksville from Hernando Beach.

That situation concerns county Commissioner Jeff Holcomb. At a commission meeting last month, he said the city was at "a very critical level of staff,’’ and he asked about the city’s overtures to the county to help out in the interim. In particular, he wondered about how the county could provide the city Fire Department with management assistance.

Holcomb also said he wondered if the city was prepared to cover the cost of additional services.

Bonner told the Tampa Bay Times that at no time has the city been unable to properly staff its emergency services, even with the loss of Freda and Murdock. He said he was asking questions about county staff at the request of the City Council.

The discussion between the city and county regarding fire service comes at an especially sensitive time.

During their difficult budget talks this summer, City Council members agreed that they needed to explore the possibility of cutting back services in the future, and one of the possibilities left on the table was closing the Brooksville Fire Department and having Hernando County Fire Rescue take over the service.

The two departments already share quarters in the city. While both departments provide fire service, county ambulances serve the city on more complex medical calls because city firefighters provide only basic life support without transport while the county provides advanced life support and transport services.

Even if the county stepped in on a temporary basis to provide additional service or leadership, there would be costs involved for Brooksville taxpayers. While the county is willing to back up the city, Holcomb said, "we have to be reimbursed for that.’’

County Administrator Len Sossamon told commissioners that he and Deputy Administrator Jeff Rogers had been exchanging emails and calls with Bonner and that they did not yet know what kind of fire and rescue leadership assistance the city might want. Sossamon has also talked to a couple of City Council members while county Fire Chief Scott Hechler has provided examples of what the county might be able to offer.

Sossamon also noted that there have been rumors that any new firefighters the city might hire could be on the job for only a couple of months if the department is eliminated.

And he said the county has told Bonner that there are currently 10 open positions for county firefighters — positions for which Brooksville firefighters might want to apply.

There was also talk about having the county be the first to respond to every call in the city, with Brooksville as backup. But that would come with a bill from the county, Sossamon said.

"We’re going to support them in more ways than one,’’ he said. "But they’ve got a heck of a row to hoe because of a monstrous budget deficit.’’

Commissioner John Allocco said he wondered how the county would determine what could be billed to the city if the county provided extra services.

Sossamon said another big concern was liability if the county put someone there to manage the department temporarily. Each department has different procedures and provides different training.

If the county provided a leader, would that person have ultimate authority, such as hiring and firing responsibilities? Without those issues resolved, he said, "we’d be flying by the seat of our pants.’’

Commissioner Steve Champion said he wondered if the City Council had actually asked Bonner to begin the negotiations with the county. He voiced concern about the clarity of the council’s direction at times.

Without a clear consensus from the commission to take further action, commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said the county should stick with the status quo until something changes.

"In the meantime,’’ he said, "we’ll just run mutual aid there.’’

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.