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Pinellas County Commission vote could take some fire engines off the road

EAST LAKE — If the County Commission approves it Tuesday, both the East Lake and Palm Harbor special fire control districts will lose funding for an advanced life support engine.

East Lake would lose one of three vehicles that the county currently funds. East Lake's fire chief agrees with the county's proposal to prioritize calls but does not want to lose a response vehicle or increase response time. He says residents more than pay for the third vehicle with their taxes.

Palm Harbor would lose one of four life support vehicles the county now funds. The district's fire chief is studying how that would affect response time. He wants to work with the county, but also maintain a quick response time for residents.

Other districts affected are Largo Fire Rescue, which would lose one vehicle, and Pinellas Suncoast Fire Rescue, which would lose two.

County officials are recommending new standards of service for the 19 local fire rescue districts the county contracts with for emergency medical services.

Starting in March, 911 dispatchers will ask a series of questions and classify calls based on urgency. Life-threatening situations will still get a full response, but calls like fender benders will not. County officials say this will allow them to eliminate funding for five fire rescue units, reducing the number of vehicles from 65 to 60 countywide.

Decisions for cuts were based on call volume, said Dick Williams, the county's director of emergency management services and fire administration. He said a computer program analyzed calls over the past year to determine where there is excess response capacity.

"Our goal is not to lower our standard (response time)," Williams said, "which is 7 1/2 minutes 90 percent of the time."

In East Lake, the county projects that the average response time would increase from six minutes, four seconds, to six minutes, 36 seconds. That is still faster than the county's standard, but East Lake Fire Rescue Fire Chief Jeff Malzone will not welcome any time increase.

"We don't believe our residents should be subject to that increased risk when they fully fund the services in East Lake and provide over $500,000 (this fiscal year) that goes back into the system," Malzone said.

Malzone said East Lake residents will pay $1.74 million in emergency medical services taxes in fiscal year 2009, but the county will return only $1.19 million to the district.

In Palm Harbor, residents will pay $2.49 million and the district will get back $1.59 million.

Fire Chief James Angle said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue is looking at the slight increase of four or five seconds in response time that the county projects if his department loses a vehicle.

"We want to assure that those models are accurate," he said, noting that some of the routes the county used in its model go through gated communities and would not work.

In any case, his department holds itself to a higher standard than the county on response time, he said. Palm Harbor currently responds in five minutes from the time it receives a call.

"The national standard (from the National Fire Protection Association) is to have a first responder there in five minutes," he said, "so we strive to meet that."

Times staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Fast facts

If you go

What: The Pinellas County Commission will vote on a resolution that revises emergency medical service standards on priority dispatch, response time and sending advanced life support vehicles.

When: 9:30 a.m. Tuesday

Where: Commission chambers, fifth floor of the County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater. Call (727) 464-3377.

Pinellas County Commission vote could take some fire engines off the road 02/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 9:45pm]
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