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Sand Key receives more fire protection

The city will put a fire engine, two firefighters and a paramedic on Sand Key next week to try to decrease response times and satisfy residents worried about their safety.

Residents, served by the fire station at north Clearwater Beach, repeatedly asked the city for better protection on Sand Key, where 23 condominium buildings dot the skyline.

"It's a great relief," said Joe Calio, Sand Key Civic Association president. "I'm very pleased. I'm so happy. One life is worth it."

The department will pay overtime to employees who work there at a cost of about $1,900 for all three employees on each 24-hour shift, fire Chief Rowland Herald said. That's about $90,000 from Monday to Oct. 1, when the city's new budget goes into effect.

City officials are still trying to determine where the overtime money will come from.

"Overtime is not a long-term solution," Herald said. "It's not fair fiscally or to the employees."

The City Commission asked Herald to put a reserve engine and three employees at the Coast Guard station until the city finds a long-term solution to the slow response times on Sand Key.

Sometime after October, the Fire Department is expected to have the money to hire nine new employees who will work on Sand Key at regular cost.

Commissioners recently agreed to form a task force to study the needs of the department and find ways to pay for millions of dollars worth of improvements across the city in the next two decades. Much of the attention, though, has focused on Sand Key and the northwest part of the city near Kings Highway and Sunset Point Road _ areas where there are no fire stations.

The average response time for Sand Key in 1998 was 6 minutes, 34seconds, much higher than the city average of 4:15.

Gathering the personnel and equipment and getting into a high-rise building takes much longer, usually about 12 minutes, Herald said. He would like to reduce that to 10 minutes or less.

Clearwater is considering building a two-bay station, possibly on city land north of the Coast Guard station, to alleviate response times on Sand Key. But that could take years.

In the meantime, commissioners decided to put the engine, firefighters and paramedics at the Coast Guard station around the clock. The engine could arrive as early as Monday.

They also agreed to spend between $750,000 and $1-million on an aerial firetruck in addition to the five engines and rescue truck that should arrive in Clearwater by the end of the year.

The task force, which will be composed of residents and city staff, will meet regularly for several months. The group will report its findings to the commission by January.

Earlier this year, city officials considered creating a separate fee to pay for fire services. But City Manager Mike Roberto dropped the controversial proposal in June.

Sand Key at a glance

Condo buildings: 23

Dwelling units: 2,400

Hotels: 2

High-rises: 8 with 20 stories

No sprinklers: 11 high-rises

Problem: The area is served by firefighters stationed at north Clearwater Beach, who often face congested roads as they try to reach Sand Key. Average response time in 1998 was 6 minutes, 34 seconds, much higher than the city average of 4:15. Gathering the personnel and equipment and getting them into a high-rise takes longer, usually about 12 minutes

Temporary solution: A reserve engine with two firefighters and one paramedic around the clock at the Coast Guard Station

Cost: $1,900 per 24-hour shift

Long-term solution: A two-bay station, possibly on city land north of the Coast Guard station. At least one fire engine. Hire at least 12 new employees

Start-up costs: $1.3-million