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Hillsborough volunteer fire associations on brink of being extinguished

BRANDON — Cory Solomon wanted to make himself useful.

Recently divorced, he didn't want to end up at the bar after work each night. To fill his time, the truck driver added volunteer firefighter to his repertoire.

It's a calling steeped in American history. Volunteer firefighters evoke an image of simpler times and small-town traditions.

During his six years of service, Solomon, 40, became part of a family. Loud and big, but always watching each other's back.

Now, that could all change.

Hillsborough County is rethinking its use of volunteer firefighters associations after an audit raised concerns about the costs and lack of oversight.

A task force has until mid November to determine how volunteers will fit into the department's future.

"The world is changing," Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Ron Rogers said Friday. "The old model won't work and we've got to do something different moving forward."

Three of the six associations have already turned operations over to the county. The Cork-Knights and Dover-Turkey Creek associations stepped aside after they failed to produce the tax records required of nonprofits. The North Brandon association ceased operations when the county declined to renew contracts at the end of September.

Without county funding, the other stations — Bloomingdale, Lutz and Sundance — are expected to follow by the end of the month.

For Solomon, who volunteered at the North Brandon station, the recent concerns didn't come as a surprise.

"There's a man in this fire department that has a vendetta against volunteers," Solomon said of Rogers.

Rogers insists that is not the case. "This is not about trying to kill the volunteers," he said. "I respect what they do. I respect their heritage."

The county's fire rescue program was built on volunteers. It began as an all-volunteer operation in the 1950s and stayed that way until the first professional firefighters were hired in 1973, according to the county.

Now, about 150 volunteers supplement the work of more than 900 career firefighters.

Rogers said he doesn't want to change that, just modify it. He suggests the county adopt a reserve firefighter program similar to the one used in Orange County, in which volunteers work side by side with the careers.

"A reserve firefighter is assigned to a crew," Rogers said. "He becomes part of the family."

Rogers believes the new model would fix some of the program's current problems.

One practice that doesn't sit well with Rogers: paying volunteers. It is also in violation of the county's contract with the firefighters' union, he said.

"The concept of volunteering is to have volunteers do that," he said.

The six volunteer fire departments cost the county about $1.5 million a year. That includes $49,950 paid to each company as well as equipment and the cost of sending in career firefighters when the companies don't have enough volunteers, according to Clifton Larson Allen LLP, the auditors hired by Hillsborough County.

Conversely, auditors estimate the cost to staff volunteer stations with all career personnel would be higher: $5 million.

Most volunteers got no compensation for their service, said Barbara Westmiller, president of the North Brandon Volunteer Firefighter Association. But the associations did use the money provided by the county to pay a small daytime crew.

"At our station, we have four people that were paid very, very minimally for coverage during the times when the rest of the volunteer staff is at their full-time jobs," Westmiller said. "But they are still required to volunteer without pay for at least the same number of hours they were paid."

Most of the county's concerns stem from having six stations operate in a different fashion than the rest.

"Some of the volunteer stations were operating as if they were autonomous from the fire department," Rogers said.

Westmiller said she thinks that may have been more of a problem on the county's end.

When the concerns about the training of volunteer firefighters came up in the audit, she was shocked.

"We do every single training that is required by the county," Westmiller said. "So if they want volunteers to have more training, I feel the county should have provided that. We're supposed to be part of a team."

But, Rogers said, no matter how much training the county doles out, volunteers will always be lagging the career firefighters.

"The amount of training required to get a volunteer on a truck is 20 percent of what a career (firefighter) does," Rogers said.

Regardless of the outcome, it feels like the end of an era for Westmiller, whose father was a volunteer firefighter.

"There has just been a general overall sense in the firehouse that we were the outcasts," she said. "We feel like they are trying to get rid of us."

Rogers said he hopes bringing in a reserve program would put an end to those feelings and any lingering animosity between full-timers and volunteers.

Solomon doesn't think it will change anything.

"I fight the same fires they do. I cut people out of the same cars they do," he said. "I'm no different, yet, sometimes I'm treated like I'm beneath them, like I'm pond scum."

Instead, Solomon sees the tradition of volunteer firefighters going up in flames.

"Within a year, people won't even bother with it," he said. "It will be long forgotten and people will say, 'Oh, remember the good old days.' "

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Hillsborough volunteer fire associations on brink of being extinguished 10/06/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 6, 2012 11:29pm]

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