Council members here say they have no interest in countywide consolidation of police, fire or EMS services. No way. No how.
"No. No. No," Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler said. "We can answer in two letters: no. We are not talking about consolidation. ... It's unanimous up here. The answer is no."
Mischler's comments were in response to a question raised by a Pinellas Park resident during a Sept. 8 Town Hall meeting.
Pinellas Park's opposition to consolidation is a sharp contrast to what's happening in some of the county's smaller cities, such as Belleair Bluffs, where voters recently agreed to disband their fire department and contract with Largo for fire protection. But Pinellas Park's opposition is typical of the larger cities that want to retain their own fire, EMS and police. Pinellas Park is the county's fourth largest municipality.
County officials are not surprised by Pinellas Park's opposition to consolidation. But they are scratching their heads over political rhetoric that seems to show some city officials have no idea how the system works.
"It appears that whoever made those statements relied on misinformation," Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said Thursday. He suggested officials might want to do some research before commenting.
Pinellas Park's criticism centered on two main issues: response time and rotation of personnel.
"By having our own police department, when we have a problem here, our response time by the police would be much better than it is (with) the county sheriff," Pinellas Park council member Jerry Mullins said. "If somebody's having a paramedic problem, our response time is half again as much. ... So, if you wait for the county to come out and take care of those problems, their response time that they need to deal with is about twice of what ours was."
Coats said he would "beg to differ with them on response time" when it came to police issues.
As for fire and EMS, the county provides neither.
The county pays some municipalities and some fire districts to provide fire service for unincorporated areas. The cities provide their own fire service or contract with other municipalities to do so. The county provides the money for all 24 Pinellas cities and the fire districts to provide first response EMS services.
The county does run the Sunstar ambulance service, but that was never intended to be first response, said Craig Hare, the county's EMS division manager. Sunstar transports patients who have been already treated by local EMS personnel. This allows the local paramedics to get back on the street quickly to be available for the next emergency. Sunstar was never intended to "beat" city paramedics to a scene. That's why county standards give Sunstar a longer time to arrive.
Pinellas Park council member Sandy Bradbury focused on rotation: "The sheriff's department rotates their police officers from one end of the county to the other so you never know who you're going to get. Elderly people, young people, won't feel comfortable talking with them."
Mullins agreed, saying, "On the police and the fire department, too, if they're countywide, they're rotated to the point that they don't even know the people they're working with. And when you're in life-threatening situations, it's darn nice to know who your partner is and who you're working with and who the fireman that's going in on the other side of the building is and that you can trust him to do his part."
Coats agreed that his department does rotate deputies. That's partly a function of promotions and other career moves law enforcement officers can make in a large department. But, he said, most deputies are required to stay at least two years in an area and some have been in the same place for years. When rotation does occur, Coats said his office tries to make sure the new deputy is quickly assimilated into the community.
Mike Cooksey, the county's fire division manager, said he was confused by the Pinellas Park claims because the county does not employ firefighters.
"I'm not sure what in the world they're talking about - the county rotating people around," Cooksey said. And, the plain fact is that, when a fire alarm is sounded, teams from various departments are called in. Firefighters many times don't know exactly who is "going in on the other side of the building." That's why the county has developed training requirements and standard procedures that all departments have to follow. It's not important who the person is on the other side of the building, or what city patch he's wearing on his uniform, Cooksey said. What's important is that the firefighters all know how to do things the same way to coordinate emergency efforts.
Hare said that, even if the Pinellas Park charges were true, they're pointless because no consolidation plan has been put forth and no one knows what form it might take. Debating the concept of consolidation is one thing, he said, but any specific critiques should be directed at the details of any proposal.