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$7.5-million sought for Seminole's fire budget

(ran West, Seminole editions)

The city staff has finished its preliminary fire budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The proposal, which calls for spending about $7.5-million, is the most expensive item in Seminole's $11-million budget.

And the bulk of that money doesn't go toward fighting fires.

Today's firefighter spends more time rescuing injured motorists and resuscitating heart attack victims than putting out fires.

Last year Seminole Fire Rescue responded to 9,857 calls, with medical calls totaling 7,200. The remaining 2,657 were fire-related, but only 4 percent were actual fires.

Compare those numbers with the 500 to 600 calls, mainly for brush fires, the department received in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The proposed budget is about $500,000 more than last year's.

The role of fire agencies across the country has changed drastically. No longer just responsible for putting out fires, firefighters now respond to emergencies of all kinds, including those dealing with terrorism, hazardous materials and medical crises.

"It's changed to responding to EMS calls to putting in car seats," said Fire Chief Dan Graves. "You name it, when the public needs something, they knock on our doors."

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The fire industry has been evolving during the last 30 years, said Randy Bruegman, first vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and fire chief for Clackamas County in Oregon.

"Emergency medical service has really opened the door to a whole myriad of special rescues," he said. "We just continue to put more and more things on our plate."

In the old days, a hose, water and a basic first aid kit were the essentials, Bruegman said. "You didn't even have rubber gloves."

Compare that with the inventory in today's fire house. Defibrillators, life-saving drugs and an array of high-tech medical equipment are standard supplies at most fire stations.

"If you look at that compared to what we did 30 years ago, we have come so far," Bruegman said.

The proposed budget calls for the upgrade of a defibrillator machine. "If they were just firefighters, we wouldn't even be buying that," said Harry Kyne, the city's finance director who along with Graves and City Manager Frank Edmunds prepared the fire budget for the next fiscal year.

"This equipment is the difference of whether you survive to the hospital," Kyne said. "This equipment lets them do that. The reality is whoever said they need to get into the paramedic business really revolutionized their industry."

The reason for the change is twofold, Bruegman said. As the fire rate began to decline because of public awareness and better building codes, those in the industry realized they could do more than fight fires. At the same time, more types of emergencies, such as hazardous material accidents, have developed during the years, Bruegman said.

"Sept. 11 was something that we have needed to prepare for," Bruegman said. "Those types of events have been happening around the world and now they're happening here."

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With the increased responsibilities of fire agencies comes the personnel needed to carry them out. "Everything has a cost," Kyne said.

About 84 percent of the fire department's budget covers paychecks and benefits, Kyne said.

The City Council discussed the budget at a workshop last week and will vote April 9 on whether to send it to the county.

Seminole Fire Rescue protects about 70,000 residents who live in a 24-square-mile area on both sides of Lake Seminole. Fire protection is included in the property taxes paid by those within the city.

This year's city tax is about $2.9396 for each $1,000 in assessed taxable value. For the average homeowner in Seminole, with a taxable value of $72,100 the entire city tax bill comes to about $212.

Those in the unincorporated areas in the Seminole fire district pay a fire protection tax to the county, which then hires Seminole Fire Rescue to provide fire and emergency medical services.

That tax this year for the fire service tax is $2.219 for each $1,000 in assessed taxable value. The average property in the district is valued at $73,600, so the average fire tax for this year was $163.

The city and the county will set next year's tax rates in late summer.

The city is anticipating nearly $4.2-million in revenue from unincorporated areas and about $1.2-million in taxes from property owners living within the city limits. Other revenue sources include contracts with other municipalities and private properties, EMS funding from the county and maintenance contracts with other fire agencies.

"Most importantly is the taxpayers are getting what they asked for," said Graves, Seminole's fire chief.