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Emergency crews' absences a worry

A paramedic truck, an engine with aerial equipment and five employees compose the complement at the Clearwater Beach fire station _ most of the time.

For three to nine hours a month, however, the fire engine is not at the station. For another three to nine hours, the paramedic truck is elsewhere. Each of the three shifts on the truck and engine must go for three hours of training each month at the drill grounds off Belcher Road.

That means the Clearwater Beach fire station is left either without an engine to fight fires or without a truck with paramedics to respond to medical calls.

"That sounds kind of dangerous to me," said Roice Geershwin, a Clearwater Beach resident. "What happens when you have gridlock out here in the spring, and no one can get here in emergencies? We could have a disaster on our hands if there was a bad fire or something."

David Little, a Clearwater Beach business owner and resident, said he has heard no complaints about fire or paramedic service. He said he doubted more equipment is needed except perhaps at certain times of the day or the year.

Deputy Fire Chief David Kinsey, who is in charge of training, said he understands concern about what could happen if all the elements of a catastrophe develop while an engine or paramedic truck from Clearwater Beach is in training.

"I can agree with the perspective of potential problems," he said. "It's a legitimate concern, and it's not one we don't have. But it's a double-edged sword _ there is required training you have to pull units to do."

The rescue truck stationed on Clearwater Beach has paramedics but cannot fight fires. The crew on the engine can fight fires but has only basic life support skills and equipment.

If the Clearwater Beach rescue truck is in training, paramedics from elsewhere have to respond to medical calls. An engine from another station goes to the beach for fire calls if the Clearwater Beach engine is in training.

Kinsey said the three-hour monthly training is required by federal, state and local mandates. Employees at all Pinellas County fire stations must comply, which means the same situation exists at stations in the city other than Clearwater Beach.

He acknowledged that Clearwater Beach is unique because it is a barrier island with limited access. A bridge opening or gridlock can cut off access to the island when emergency crews respond from the mainland. The closest fire station to Clearwater Beach is downtown.

"We'd love to have floating engines and rescue trucks to fill in with when we need them," Kinsey said. "We'd also like to do the training off-duty, but all this would cost the city a great, great deal of money for overtime and equipment."

Fire Chief Robert Davidson stressed that engines and firefighters or paramedics from other stations closest to Clearwater Beach respond to handle emergencies that the station cannot handle.

"We try to do what's best for the city," he said. "We don't leave territories uncovered."

According to Kinsey, if units responding to a Clearwater Beach emergency from downtown cannot get there because of some problem such as spring break gridlock, firefighters and paramedics from Indian Rocks Beach would respond.

"When something happens, it's important to have good response time and enough staff," said Jo Lynn Jackson, Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce executive director. "The beach should not be left on its own. We are part of Clearwater."