A situation in Tarpon Springs makes it abundantly clear why Pinellas County needs to be talking about consolidating fire departments.
Tarpon Springs fire Chief Stephen R.M. Moreno told city commissioners during a budget meeting that he needs 15 more firefighters to reach the staffing level recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.
Commissioners, faced with declining revenues because of voter-mandated tax reform and falling property values, gave Moreno only one more firefighter by opening a frozen position. That action will give the fire department 33 firefighter/EMTs — only 11 per shift.
Here's the result: The Tarpon Springs Fire Department doesn't have enough firefighters per shift to safely attack even a small structure fire. They have to wait for firefighters from other departments, such as East Lake or Palm Harbor to arrive before they can aggressively battle the blaze. The danger to life and property is obvious.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends that a fire department have 15 or 16 firefighters on scene to safely attack a one-room residential fire. While some argue that the job can be done with 14, no one advocates 11. And Tarpon Springs can roll 11 only if every firefighter is on duty and none are responding to other emergencies.
Fortunately, Pinellas County has a mutual aid system, meaning that fire departments respond to emergencies in other jurisdictions when their crews are available. But with many departments understaffed, and with city government revenues declining, how long will it be before big holes develop in the county's mutual aid network? Look at what is happening in the Tarpon department: It has had the same number of firefighters since 1983, according to the chief, while the city population has grown by 60 percent and annual calls for service have grown from 800 to 4,000. Similar statistics can be found in other cities.
The Tarpon Springs Fire Department's line in the city budget is increasing next year, not only because of the addition of one full-time firefighter, but also because city commissioners included some extra overtime money. The overtime budget will be used to keep an extra firefighter on duty during peak times and to allow the Fire Department to do more fire safety inspections, which is a vital part of a professional department's duties.
Discussions about consolidating fire departments dissolved a few years ago, opposed by the rank-and-file and chiefs alike. However, the county fire chiefs association has ended its opposition to discussing consolidation, and behind the scenes in city halls and the county courthouse, there is now talk about how consolidation may be the only way to fund adequate fire protection for all parts of the county.
Let the discussions begin. All fire departments in the county should be a part of those discussions, which should focus on protecting the public's safety, not protecting turf.