A year ago, when an Oregon-based consultant handed over its 574-page "master plan'' for Hernando County's fire and emergency medical services, all eyes were on the recommendations for consolidation.
With Spring Hill residents voting in November to make Spring Hill Fire Rescue an independent special district, the concept of countywide consolidated services came off the table.
But that hasn't stopped the county's fire chiefs from finding ways to implement the majority of the other recommendations that came out of the consultant's report. Their focus has been to achieve some of the same goals as consolidation — to save money and eliminate redundant services in administration and support services — while maintaining their individual identities.
In fact, Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Nickerson estimates that about 80 percent of the fire study suggestions have either been put in place, are in the process of being implemented or are still in discussion.
"The major issues have pretty much been taken care of,'' Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief Mike Rampino agreed.
Shortly after the fire study was released, representatives from the county's six fire departments began meeting to comb through the report and find ways to implement recommendations.
While the study recommended higher levels of cooperation among fire departments, fire officials say that idea was already in their minds. Just a month after the study was released, Nickerson and Brooksville Fire Chief Tim Mossgrove were standing before county commissioners in a ceremonial signing of a new mutual aid agreement between the departments.
The document formalized the agreement that jurisdictional boundaries would not determine which department would respond to an emergency. The closest unit would go.
"Working together, that's really been an awesome thing,'' Mossgrove said.
That kind of cooperation is commonplace, Rampino said. He recalled a recent week when both Spring Hill and Hernando County fire rescue units needed to borrow an ambulance or fire truck, and the two departments were able to loan vehicles as needed.
Shortly after the mutual aid agreement was signed, Brooksville turned its emergency dispatching over to Hernando County, another recommendation in the study.
Still another suggestion became reality in September when first the County Commission and then the Brooksville City Council approved a plan to close county Fire Station 24 and move operations to nearby Brooksville Fire Station 61.
The county's station was in need of replacement, but with the nearness of the city's station, the county agreed to spend $572,000 in impact fees to build an addition at the Brooksville station to house the combined operation.
Officials have been talking about floor plans and are hoping to see rough drawings in the next few weeks.
"I'd say we've made some significant progress over the year,'' Mossgrove said, praising the level of cooperation he has seen as the departments have found ways to work together to get improve public safety.
Among other actions taken to follow through with fire study suggestions, the fire departments have combined and standardized their medical protocols, worked together on training issues, developed a countywide fire investigation team, opened up other specialty teams to all departments and improved on joint purchasing, including a recent group purchase of five fire rescue trucks — four for Hernando and one for Spring Hill.
Big-ticket items recommended by the fire study consultants, but not yet settled by the chiefs and their respective governing bodies, include the addition of two fire stations for Hernando County Fire Rescue and one for Spring Hill Fire Rescue.
Rampino said he anticipated the Spring Hill station will be brought back up for discussion now that the district's independence question has been settled. Spring Hill Fire Rescue has been talking to the county about a county-owned piece of property as a possible location.
He also said that the other major recommendation not yet settled — whether Spring Hill will consolidate its emergency dispatching with Hernando County — will likely come back before his fire board soon.
With worsening economic conditions and more revenue losses expected in the upcoming budget year, County Administrator David Hamilton said the consolidation of dispatching will likely have to be addressed again.
"That needs to be revisited,'' Hamilton said, but that will require interest on the part of the Spring Hill board and Sheriff Richard Nugent.
As for the implementation of the other fire study recommendations, Hamilton said he was pleased, but noted that there are still many details to work out, especially now that Spring Hill is free of county oversight. How administrative functions that the county has done for the fire department will be handled in the future has not been worked out, he said.
Hamilton is set to meet with Rampino in early January to discuss some of those issues.
The discussions about other ways to cooperate continue.
"Do we have more work to do? Absolutely,'' Mossgrove said. "Will it happen overnight? No.''
Other than the total consolidation of fire services, one other suggestion in the fire study has been rejected by the chiefs — a recommendation to decrease staffing during the nonpeak service times.
But Nickerson said that the recommendation was based on the idea of average demand, and did not match the public safety protocol of the fire service.
"I have a problem with that from an emergency standpoint,'' he said. "When the worst-case scenario happens, you've got to be able to deal with it.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.