MADEIRA BEACH — The fire chief of this city and that of Treasure Island met Tuesday to discuss the possibility of joining the two departments next year.
Just how that would work and whether it would mean a change in how they are funded or in personnel is still in question.
What is not up for debate is the financial cost to the cities and their taxpayers if some kind of consolidation does not occur.
Their hands are being forced because a national rating agency recently told both cities that unless they put more firefighters on each truck that responds to a call, their insurance rating would drop significantly. The Insurance Services Office, or ISO, scores municipal fire departments, and those scores are used by insurance companies in setting fire insurance rates for individuals, businesses and governments.
The ISO wants a guarantee that each city fire department will send a minimum of four firefighters to all calls.
Regular staffing at the two fire departments generally allows for only three firefighters per truck on a shift, with the fourth made up through overtime or with the presence of the fire chief.
The cities also provide additional firefighters by responding to each other's fire calls through Pinellas County's mutual aid agreement.
"Under our mutual aid agreement, we have a minimum of 12 to 14 firefighters at any structure fire in Pinellas County," Madeira Beach fire Chief Bill Mallory said.
But the ISO's policies ignore such agreements, and each city fire department is rated as a stand-alone responder.
This has put the cities in a financial bind. Either they must continue using overtime or hire more firefighters — which eventually could force either higher property taxes or a sharp cut in other services or spending — or pay potentially significantly higher insurance premiums.
For the past month, the city commissions and administrations have debated whether joining the two departments in some form would satisfy the ISO.
During a workshop session this month, the Madeira Beach Commission agreed to pursue a more formal relationship with Treasure Island.
"The two departments would have to function as one," said City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. "Any sharing would, in fact, be merging the two departments."
Treasure Island fire Chief Charlie Fant is not so sure that could happen, however.
"It's so early. We haven't decided anything yet. In fact, it may never happen. Right now we are complying with ISO policies with overtime," Fant said.
Mallory said no decision will be made until at least the end of January.
"Chief Fant and I met today to discuss what type of agreement we could draft," Mallory said Tuesday.
He stressed that the agreement would not result in the closing of either city's fire stations or in any reduction in personnel.
"We have to come up with an agreement that is stronger language than we have now that will tie the two departments a little closer together," Mallory said.
He said the fire departments will change their working relationships and may operate somewhat differently, particularly how they share resources and equipment, and possibly train together.
"Operationally, our response to fires will be identical to today," Mallory said.