BROOKSVILLE — For just a couple of dollars a year from every property owner in its jurisdiction, the Hernando County Fire Rescue district can secure the staffing needed to make citizens and firefighters safer.
That is the pitch used by Chief Mike Nickerson as he made his first presentation to the County Commission this week on a proposed staffing plan that would ensure that three firefighters are on every engine.
Fully staffing the engines has been a recurring theme for Nickerson, who reminded commissioners Tuesday that the industry standard under the National Fire Protection Association is four firefighters per engine, two to go into a burning building and two to stay out and back them up.
But Hernando County Fire Rescue still has just half of its eight engines with three people on board and the other half only have two.
Nickerson pitched two scenarios to the commissioners that could change that. In one case, the county would apply for a federal grant known as a SAFER or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant to help pay for the 12 new firefighters who would be needed to fill out the engine crews.
The cost including benefits of hiring an entry level firefighter is $55,522 for an overall total of $666,264 to bring 12 new staff members into the district.
The four-year grant would pay most of the costs in the first year and then step down until the county would be paying the full price in the fifth year.
Under the second scenario, the county could just fully fund the 12 new firefighters through a larger increase in the annual fire fee that appears on the tax bills of property owners in the district. The current annual fire fee for a homeowner is $194.87 and it was last increased in 2007.
Hernando Fire Rescue provides fire and emergency medical services to a population of roughly 65,000 and emergency medical services to an additional 14,000 in jurisdictions served by other fire services such as the city of Brooksville and Hernando Beach.
Under the grant scenario, the fire fee would have to increase 2.1 percent or $4.09. If the county paid for the new firefighters outright, the fee would increase by 7.1 percent or $13.84 in the first year. In either case, by the fifth year, the property owners of the district would be paying the full price of the additional staff and the fire fee would raise to $209.87.
Going the grant route, Nickerson explained, would save the county $1.27 million. He also said he is confident the county could be successful in snagging one of the grants because other jurisdictions that rely on property taxes to fund fire rescue don't have match money available to apply.
The staffing issue has been an important one with the local firefighters union and members asked that it be brought up again. Last year with union support, Nickerson was able to replace expensive overtime by hiring nine new firefighters to fill in the gaps.
Two firefighters urged the commission to take the next step now and fully staff every engine with three firefighters and other citizens voiced support as well.
"I'm willing to increase taxes to keep these guys safe,'' area resident Chuck Morton told commissioners.
Commissioner Dave Russell suggested the county might want to consider starting out by funding only a portion of that 12-person staffing increase.
"Maybe that gets us started,'' he said.
Ultimately the commission decided it needed more time to consider the plan and set another discussion for April 27. Nickerson said he has plenty of time to apply for the grant, if that is what the commission decides, because he doesn't need to do so until the summer.
Firefighter Robert Rae said he didn't know what more there was to discuss.
"You've got one guy who shows up to a burning building. What would you have him do?'' Rae, president of the Hernando firefighters union, said.
Multiple personnel are needed to provide backup in such a situation. A building must be searched and people inside might need help. The firefighter might need help. Someone has to be there if something happens, Rae explained.
He said he understood the county was dealing with a tight budget but he also said the couple of dollars a year the proposal would cost a property owner would be worth it.
"That's a small price to pay for yours and my safety,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.