ST, PETERSBURG — Residents' fears of a loss of community identity is a major stumbling block to countywide consolidation of fire and EMS services even though it might save some tax money, three Pinellas fire chiefs say.
Three components need to be present for consolidation to work: a system that's seen as too costly, a proposal that maintains the jobs for frontline firefighters and a willing electorate.
"It is rare for those three components to come together," Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace said. Wallace, the secretary of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, made the comment last week at a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.
Wallace and two other officers of the chiefs association, Doug Lewis of Pinellas Park and James Geer of Clearwater, met with the editorial board to talk about consolidation of fire and EMS services.
Pinellas County already has functional consolidation, Wallace said. That means all firefighters in the county's 19 departments are trained the same way, respond to the same 911 system, use the same equipment and have the same operating procedures.
When people talk about consolidation, they're usually talking about a merger into one department in which there is one overall chief and all firefighters wear the same patches on their uniforms, ride in the same color vehicles and get paychecks from a central system.
"A merger is a loss of identity" for individual departments, Wallace said.
And that would be a huge issue if recent talk of a full countywide consolidation ever came to a vote. Historically, voters across Pinellas have resisted that loss of identity.
Voters in the unincorporated Lealman area — some of the poorest in the county — turned down the chance to merge with Pinellas Park or St. Petersburg.
Instead, they chose to form a special fire district and tax themselves rather than have the words Pinellas Park or St. Petersburg on fire trucks that were paid for with their money. They also wanted to make sure the firefighters they knew would stay in the Lealman area and continue to be a part of the community.
Residents of Kenneth City have voted several times to retain their police department rather than let the sheriff take over for a much lower cost, because they wanted to retain officers they knew who were familiar with them and their town. They also like seeing the words Kenneth City on the side of police cars.
And Wallace, whose department may take over the Belleair Bluffs department, said residents there were concerned that the merger would mean firefighters would no longer take part in the annual Santa parade. Wallace said he assured residents the community service would continue.
Wallace, Lewis and Geer conceded that a consolidated, or merged, system might be more cost effective. But the savings, they said, would be minimal and, in any case, voters often chose the more expensive system as a trade to retaining community identity and personal service.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.