TARPON SPRINGS — During a recent budget workshop, fire Chief Stephen R.M. Moreno told city commissioners it would take an additional 15 firefighters to bring the city's department up to the recommended staffing level.
On Tuesday, they gave him one.
The board agreed to open a frozen position, which will bring the number of firefighter/EMTs to 33, or 11 per shift, without factoring in vacations and sick time.
Members also okayed overtime pay to add another firefighter on each shift during periods of peak activity.
The decision is a move in the right direction, said Moreno, who took over the department's top post late in 2005.
"It is a 25-year-old problem and you can't solve it overnight," Moreno said.
The Fire Department has had the same number of firefighters since 1983, Moreno said.
Since then, the population has grown by 60 percent and calls for service have more than quintupled from 800 in 1983 to 4,000 last year.
The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization that helps set industry standards, advocates a response from 15 to 16 firefighters for a one-room residential fire.
That means Tarpon needs to wait for help from neighboring departments, such as East Lake and Palm Harbor.
"If it's a working fire — that means if we see smoke or we're preparing to take a line in — we have to have their assistance," Moreno said.
That's not uncommon in Pinellas County, where departments operate under mutual aid agreements.
Factoring in paid time off and sick leave, Dunedin carries an average of 13 firefighters per shift, and Safety Harbor, 10 to 11.
"Anyone with less than four fire stations, it's hard to get those 15 to 16 that NFPA standards say," said Dunedin fire Chief Bud Meyer.
Dunedin has three stations and Tarpon has two.
The board on Tuesday also agreed to pay overtime to devote more efforts to inspections and "pre-incident" planning, which is used to acquaint firefighters with specific structures and their hazards before a fire starts.
The overtime pay will come from $457,000 already factored into the department's $4.4-million budget, said interim City Manager Mark LeCouris.
Tarpon firefighters make about $76,000 a year, including benefits.
While the city's overall general fund budget is decreasing this year, the Fire Department's budget is increasing by $445,000.
LeCouris, who also serves as police chief, said the city may need to consider raising taxes next year to pay for more firefighters, but he said the shortage hasn't impeded fire service.
"If we were concerned about a real safety issue we would have been hollering and screaming to get what we need," LeCouris said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow @sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.