The safety problems that have plagued High Point Volunteer Fire Department aren't over yet, according to a recent state audit.
The troubled department claims it has made significant improvements and will be able to meet deadlines set for early next year. But county officials worry that the volunteers simply can't or won't fix the problems in time, putting the volunteers and High Point residents at risk.
High Point Capt. Rob Paul said the report noted paperwork and procedural issues, and that the department is operating safely.
"I would tell you right up front the report was basically fine," Paul said.
The state Bureau of Fire Safety and Training inspected the 41-member department on Oct. 3, and released its findings in early November.
The report noted substantial improvements in the department's record keeping, particularly its development of written operating procedures - something the department didn't have a year ago.
But a lack of required training continued to raise concerns. Among the issues noted:
* Firefighters arriving at a fire scene and entering the "hot zone" without proper fire protection.
* Out of 41 members, only five have Firefighter I certification and only one has Firefighter II certification. Safety rules require four Firefighter I certified firefighters at a scene before any firefighter can enter a blaze.
* Members had not completed federally required training in incident command systems.
* Firefighters were familiar with equipment, but "demonstrated some trepidation when asked to perform basic exercises with that equipment and apparatus."
* A lack of "leading through example," including the chief and assistant chief arriving at fires without proper gear.
* Firefighters hadn't been fitted for required face masks.
* Lack of enforcement of rules, "from proper use of appropriate turnout gear to the use of seat belts in apparatus."
The state gave High Point 60 to 90 days to fix the different problems. Most of them have been fixed, Paul said. Almost all members have now completed the federal incident command training, and the department should soon have four more Firefighter I certified members.
Mike Nickerson, Hernando County fire rescue chief, said High Point shouldn't downplay their safety failures.
"During an emergency, obviously a firefighter can't be too timid and cautious in carrying out his duties," Nickerson said.
Paul disputed the firefighters' "trepidation" with equipment.
"I have no idea what the heck he's talking about when he said there are people who are timid around the equipment," Paul said. "That is not the case at all."
Dave Casey, chief of fire standards and training for the state fire marshal, said he sent two seasoned inspectors.
"The two individuals we sent both have 30 years in fire service each, and are quite familiar with equipment and apparatus," he said bluntly. "If they noted there was a hesitancy, there was a hesitancy."
Casey said the state can levy fines or, in extreme cases, issue a cease and desist order if departments fail to comply with regulations. More likely, they'd work with the department to improve conditions.
The bureau inspected High Point in March 2005. Since then, High Point has conducted additional training, improved record keeping and begun to develop operating procedures.
The volunteers have come under fire from county officials who feel they're ill prepared to fight fires. The conflict began more than a year ago, after a 2005 Labor Day weekend fire that destroyed one mobile home. High Point volunteers didn't call for help, leaving Hernando County firefighters waiting at the community's closed gate.
Shortly after that fire, the County Commission put the county's fire department in charge of protecting High Point's 1,600 homes. Residents of the mobile home community pay their department a voluntary $45 annual fee, and don't pay the county's $156 annual tax.
Since the 2005 fire, the volunteers have successfully staved off repeated criticism from the commission, despite renewed concerns about the department's ability to safely fight fires.
The report also noted the "poor relationship" between High Point and the county. The volunteers serve at the pleasure of the County Commission, "and it would be in the best interest of all parties to work on improving the current status of that relationship."
Asjylyn Loder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352)754-6127.