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Firefighters celebrate new station

An eagerly anticipated new fire station has opened just south of the Sand Key bridge, providing a central location for rescuers to respond to fires and emergencies amid the high rises on Sand Key and south Clearwater Beach.

Construction on the 7,800-square-foot fire station began last December. Fire crews began using the station Nov. 5, said Wayne Hanson, fire support manager for the Clearwater Fire Department.

The city has invested more than $1.5-million for the building and equipment, which includes a new fire engine. A backup engine also will be kept at the two-bay station, the city's seventh.

Nine firefighters and paramedics _ split into three three-person shifts _ will staff the station.

The department has had a steady presence on Sand Key for the last three years by keeping a unit at the U.S. Coast Guard station, which is about 1.5 miles south of the new station. A rescue unit was kept there for the first year. A fire engine has been there for the last two years.

"We don't have any more resources today than there were six months ago," Deputy Chief Terry Welker said. "What are the citizens going to see after the grand opening that they haven't been seeing? Very little difference."

Hanson said the new station provided a more central location that will make responses to south Clearwater Beach more rapid.

"This is a better location for us because we can take care of Sand Key and the south beaches," he said. "This will only improve the situation because we're in a better position."

The shelter provided by the new station also allows the department to run a new engine there. The engine deployed out of the Coast Guard station was kept outside.

"We didn't want to keep a new engine outside, which is where we had to keep it at the Coast Guard," Hanson said.

Welker said the station also gave firefighters a place to call their own. Though fire officials are appreciative that the Coast Guard let them use its facility, he said the three-person crew had been crammed into two rooms, one of which was an office.

"For their own comfort, we're glad to put them in a real fire station," Welker said.

The new station also is designed to accommodate a crew of up to eight rescuers. Fire officials can beef up staffing during spring break. They also can add firefighters in the future if there proves to be such a need, Welker said.

"The capabilities to enhance services for the future have improved," he said. "I believe the fire chief's intention is to look very closely at putting more staff on the beach. But we also have to look at tax dollars and what the city can afford."

The new station also has an alarm system hooked directly to the 911 center. At the old station, crews were dispatched via radio, with pager dispatching serving as a backup.

"This is a great addition to the community, and I'm sure it will work out real well," said Larry Stuler, property manager of Lighthouse Towers condominiums.

Stuler said jitters felt by high rise residents after a fatal fire at the Dolphin Cove Condominiums on June 28 might be soothed by the new station.

"Obviously, we're real excited about the whole thing," Stuler said.

With so many high rises on Sand Key, Welker said, fire officers will be given more resources and tools if they wish to specifically train to fight tall building fires.

The fire department will have a community open house at 10 a.m. Tuesday to celebrate the station's grand opening. The public is invited, and parking will be available across the street at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center.