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Fire service alarms commissioner

As Hillsborough County's growth has turned little burgs into bustling suburbs, some communities that once made do with volunteer fire departments are finding they need something more. But making sure that the county's new urban areas have adequate fire protection is stretching the resources of the county fire department and worrying some elected officials.

In the past two months, two professional fire crews that normally work in stations in northwest Hillsborough have been moved to cover territory that previously was handled by volunteer stations.

That bothers County Commissioner Pam Iorio, whose district has lost the crews.

"I find it rather alarming, because I think we have to maintain a certain level of fire service in all areas of the county," Iorio said.

She has asked County Administrator Fred Karl to study the issue and recommend a solution to commissioners. Iorio said it might be time for the county to consider dipping into its contingency fund to fully staff stations for the rest of the fiscal year.

"I don't like to take money out of the reserve for contingency," Iorio said, adding the county did that earlier this year for items ranging from travel expenses to clerical equipment. "This kind of thing is what I think a reserve for contingency is for."

In one case, an engine crew was taken from a north Tampa station on 131st Avenue and moved to a station in an area known as Midway, northeast of Plant City, Fire Chief James Callahan said. The volunteer department in Midway simply could not muster enough interest to meet requirements, Callahan said.

In the second case, a ladder truck that normally is available for calls from a station on Linebaugh Avenue has been taken out of service so its crew can staff a volunteer station on Gunn Highway, Callahan said.

The Gunn Highway volunteers asked for the county's help because of financial difficulties. Like many volunteer stations, the Gunn Highway group raises money to pay firefighters to staff the station during the day when volunteers have other jobs, Callahan said.

But he said the group was facing decreasing support from the community.

"They felt that (because) they were paying their taxes, they didn't want to pay for a volunteer organization also," Callahan said.

Fire officials said that crews were transferred from stations that originally had two crews on duty, leaving each station with one working crew.

Karl said the county budgeted enough money to staff only county-run fire stations and not volunteer departments.

"With the problems that are developing with the reductions in volunteers, we're just faced with having to spread our professional people a little thinner," Karl said.

Officials said the level of protection is adequate but not ideal.

"We should not continue this level indefinitely," said Assistant County Administrator Larry Blick.

But the county's financial problem isn't temporary.

Blick said that, according to early estimates, it would cost $40,000 a month to restore the crews to their original stations and hire new crews to staff the volunteer stations.

Karl said he would consider Iorio's suggestion regarding the county's reserve funds and report back to the commission soon.

"In the end, firefighting is one of the essential public safety services that we have to fund," Karl said. "If we have to have more money for that, we're going to have to take it and reduce something else."