LITHIA — Retired Hillsborough County firefighter Lewis Duque told county officials they'd be signing the death warrants of critically ill and injured southeast Hillsborough County residents if they move the Lithia fire station's advanced life-support truck to the Riverview fire station.
Duque was among 20 Lithia residents who turned out for a community meeting Thursday at Pinecrest Elementary School about a proposal to shuffle the truck from Lithia to Riverview. The proposal is part of a six-month pilot program aimed at reducing Hillsborough County Fire-Rescue emergency response times.
Chief Dennis Jones, appointed Hillsborough County's top fire-rescue official a year ago, said he's trying to maintain life-saving rescue services without busting his $145 million annual budget.
"It's been very difficult to keep up with the growth," Jones said, adding that county fire-rescue has seen a 24 percent increase in calls since last year. "We need a lot more units than we have now."
But his proposal prompted a flurry of social media posts from upset residents, prompting County Commissioner Stacy White to schedule Thursday's community meeting.
"I've heard the community loud and clear, and I'm with you 100 percent," White told residents.
He plans to ask the county commission to approve a budget amendment at Wednesday's board meeting to purchase an additional advanced life-support truck for the Riverview fire station.
According to Jones, the vehicles cost about $300,000 but they require more than $1 million a year to staff and equip. Due to the expense, only 15 of the county's 43 fire stations have advanced life-support trucks.
Fire Station 2 at 6726 Lithia-Pinecrest Road is among them. It received its truck in 2014 after 15 years of lobbying by the community. Residents argued that the vehicle is critical to saving lives in this rural, farflung section of the county stretching east to the Polk County line and south to the Manatee County line.
All fire stations in the county have fire engine companies manned by paramedics and equipped with emergency medical equipment, but they can't transport patients to the hospital. Instead, they must wait for an advanced life-support truck.
That wait could mean the difference between life and death, Duque said.
"This is a unique station because of the distance it covers," he said. "With our zoning of one home per acre, we'll never meet the density requirements for a rescue unit. But there's a golden hour when it's crucial to get a critical care patient to the hospital. I've been on the scene when I've had to wait 35 to 40 minutes for a rescue unit to arrive."
Lithia resident Scott Lawrence, who retired last year after 38 years with Hillsborough County Fire-Rescue, choked up as he related a personal tragedy three years ago when his wife was forced to administer CPR to his daughter for 12 minutes while awaiting a rescue unit.
"The raw numbers don't show the reality," Lawrence said.
"We have got to make you understand that (rescue) truck has to stay here," Lithia resident Laura Filardo told county officials. "We used to wait almost an hour, and people used to die."
Jones assured residents that Lithia wouldn't lack an advance-life support truck for long.
The county is about to break ground on a new fire station in FishHawk Ranch, two miles from the Lithia station. The new station will be equipped with one of the vehicles.
However, the FishHawk station won't be completed until late 2017 or early 2018, and residents say that's too long for Lithia to be without a truck.
"I'm a fiscal conservative but nothing trumps public safety," he said. "I liken (truck) to an insurance policy. You have to have it but you hope to God you never have to use it."
Contact D'Ann Lawrence White at email@example.com.