Saturday, August 18, 2018
Public safety

Hillsborough needs 25 new fire stations, not meeting response goals, fire chief warns

TAMPA — Hillsborough County needs 25 new fire stations in the next 25 years to keep up with the thousands of people moving here each year, Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones told county commissioners Wednesday.

The county is already failing to meet emergency response benchmarks, Jones warned, and it will only get worse as Hillsborough grapples with one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. A new fire station hasn't opened in a decade, though one is expected to go online in FishHawk later this year.

"We have an urgent need for more fire stations," Jones said.

Rescue personnel respond to an emergency in less than seven minutes about 55 percent of the time in urban and suburban areas, well short of the department's goal of 90 percent.

Whether it's a fire or a heart attack, minutes four to six are the most critical, Jones said.

"If we can't get our units on scene within four to six minutes, we're working behind the curve," he said, "and citizens aren't being served."

The findings were the result of a county fire rescue master plan to assess Hillsborough's needs through 2040.

It's not the first time a county fire study has sounded the siren. A 2003 master plan called for 32 new fire stations by 2015. Instead, the county built five to bring the total to 42.

There is particular need for investment in south county, Jones said, where there hasn't been a new station south of Bloomingdale in 30 years.

The issue, of course, is money. Capital costs, meaning the expense of building the fire stations and buying the trucks to fill them, would require about $20 million a year through 2031. Staffing those new stations would increase the operational budget for Fire Rescue by more than $70 million a year once the proposal is fully realized.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said the plan was "extremely aggressive" and the county will have a difficult time weighing it against other county needs.

A parks master plan is also in the works, and the county's court system also has millions of dollars in unfunded projects planned. As is always the case in Hillsborough, there are plenty of transportation needs that loom over any budget conversation, as well.

"Additional funding sources need to be considered," Hagan said.

"I'll be honest with you — I feel there is some that feel that we have unlimited revenue and that our budget decisions do not have consequences," he added. "Sooner or later, we will have an economic downturn and our chickens will come home to roost."

The county may consider increasing fire impact fees that are charged to developers when construction adds new strains to the fire department's ability to respond. Commissioner Stacy White said those fees, which haven't been increased in years, are probably a 10th of what they should be.

It's one of many ways that the county's growth isn't paying for the cost of providing services to new residents and businesses moving and starting here, White said.

The remedy, White said, is finding ways to curb sprawl and encourage more sustainable land use — a frequent plea of his.

White noted that the county meets its goal for response time in rural areas more often than in the suburbs and urban corridors.

"When we grow, it's supposed to increase our tax base and we're supposed to be able to do more things, and people argue with growth comes enhanced quality of life," White said. "But it would almost appear … there's an adverse quality of life in urban areas."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

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