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Guest column | Stephen R.M. Moreno III

Guest column: Fire staff consolidation won't help

Your Sept. 10 editorial, Tarpon fire staffing issue points to consolidation, was factual and informative regarding the basic facts. There are some additional points to be considered.

Consolidation does not automatically create a new pool of firefighters from which staffing shortages can be filled. The fire rescue divisions of the various entities within our county are staffed at minimum or slightly below, in most cases. The automatic (mutual) aid system is designed to augment staffing and equipment countywide. In most instances, the system works.

Tarpon Springs has the boundaries of the Gulf of Mexico to the west and Pasco County to the north. Assistance comes from East Lake Fire Rescue and/or Palm Harbor Fire Rescue. Tarpon is unique in this realm, having a profound effect on response capabilities. There is no "help" available from the north and west. Most departments have three or four other sources on which to depend, or within the local fire organization there is adequate staffing to mitigate responses.

The editorial mentioned turf protection. As I cannot speak for the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association, I can only give you the facts as I know them, being relatively new to the system. The chiefs in our county are not opposed to consolidation and/or streamlining of services. The fact that we have one 911 service center, that we all utilize the same medical director's office and staff, and that we all share training development and opportunities indicates a level of consolidation already in place.

Without a true understanding of the system, the concept that we are 22 separate entities is understandable. The current system allows streamlined and efficient service delivery, while each individual community or city has a voice in the level of service provided. In this "business," we have many repeat customers who are comfortable with the firefighters and medics who come to their assistance when in need. This personalized service, in conglomerate service delivery organizations, is nonexistent.

The former county administrator, Steve Spratt, came from an area that had envisioned the savings and utopia of what is purported in your editorial. One of the objectives of his tenure was to create the same conglomerate fire department that he had created before. It is correct that the managers of the fire divisions within Pinellas County did not buckle on this issue. The primary issues were increased immediate costs and, in reality, lower levels of service delivery.

Scrutinize two conglomerate fire divisions that are now in the process of taking things back to the way they were. Look at the Miami-Dade fire service consolidation efforts and the Fulton County, Ga., consolidation and subsequent reforming of smaller city and community departments to regain fiscal and service level control on the local level. There are many instances nationwide where it has been proved that bigger management is not better. It always costs more, and service delivery is depersonalized and reduced.

The situation in our city is unique from that of the departments managed by my peers. It is not one that can be solved overnight, as it took more than 20 years to be created. Judging the other 21 departments in our county by the shortcomings of one cannot be justified, even in the interest of selling newspapers.

If consolidation was the answer, I would be all for it to improve the safety of the firefighters and citizens I am charged to protect. Consolidation would not provide the personnel needed, and it would not continue the level of service the people of Tarpon Springs are accustomed to.

Methods to get it done safely, efficiently and effectively are always our focus. The city manager, the mayor and City Commission are supportive and with us on this issue. The future is positive for all of the protected areas of Pinellas County. We will all continue to strive for safety in an efficient and effective manner.

Stephen R.M. Moreno III is the fire chief in Tarpon Springs.

Guest column: Fire staff consolidation won't help 09/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 2:21pm]
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