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Fire volunteers and Hillsborough find way to coexist

(ran PAS edition)

Brad Price would challenge anyone to distinguish his volunteer firefighters from paid Hillsborough County firefighters at a scene.

The training and background may be different, he said, but at a fire, everyone is equal.

"They're all in bunker gear, working side by side," said Price, chief of the Seffner-Mango Volunteer Fire Department in east Hillsborough.

"One's got a blue shirt with a county patch on it. The other's got a blue shirt with a Seffner-Mango patch on it."

As leader of one of eight volunteer departments in Hillsborough, Price said he understands why volunteers in Land O'Lakes are leery of giving up their autonomy.

"The volunteers were here long before any of the county fire services were," Price said. "My department was founded in 1962. We don't have any intention of losing our identity in this community.'

Pasco fire-rescue Chief Matt Ballaban has said he wants to bring volunteer firefighters into the county system.

His comments at a recent County Commission meeting triggered an outpouring of support for the volunteers, who say the county is driven not by public safety concerns but by greed for more tax dollars.

Commissioners have said they will not make changes without the community's support.

In Hillsborough, the decision to create a countywide fire service was made out of necessity in the 1970s, fire-rescue Chief Bill Nesmith said.

"At one point in Hillsborough, all we had was volunteers," said Nesmith, a former firefighter for the city of Tampa. "Over the years, the growth was such that the county decided it needed to develop a career fire service."

The volunteers now work under the county umbrella and receive some county funding, Nesmith said. The volunteer organizations maintain their own boards of directors and still do some fund raising, he said.

Their equipment is mostly owned and maintained by the county. The county also covers all workers' compensation, insurance and liability costs. Hillsborough is working on a benefits package for its volunteers, he said.

Why so much effort for unpaid help?

Each year, the volunteers save the county $3.5-million to $4-million in staffing costs, Nesmith said. They keep the doors open at several county-owned stations that would otherwise need paid firefighters to run them.

"They are a tremendous asset to us," he said. "We treat them the same as we do any of our career firefighters."

It wasn't always so peaceful, Price said.

Over the years, the volunteers battled with the county for better funding, the right to handle discipline matters and the creation of a volunteer coordinator to act as a liaison between the county and the volunteers.

Having written policies that both sides agree on and a system of checks and balances helps, Price said.

"There's still a lot of old-timers on both sides who think the other simply isn't worth a damn," he said. "I think they've opened their eyes to the fact that we are a vital part of their operation. We have people that are just as qualified and just as dedicated as they do."

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