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County pulls plug on Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department

BROOKSVILLE — When it came time this week for county commissioners to decide whether to shut down the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, Commissioner Steve Champion didn't mince words.

"You can't responsibly sit up here and vote to keep that (department)'' in the face of a "laundry list of problems," Champion said.

A majority of commissioners concurred, voting 3-1 Tuesday to terminate the county's contract with the department. They agreed to provide Hernando County Fire Rescue services, with an advanced life support engine staffed by three firefighters at the Hernando Beach station, when the contract ends in 60 days.

But on Wednesday morning, the volunteers notified the county that they were closing up shop at 2 p.m. that day, and the county immediately sent a county engine with staff to the station. The county's firefighter/paramedics have actually already been responding to all calls in Hernando Beach since Dec. 1.

They took over the service first because the volunteers refused to provide the county with details regarding daily staffing and their qualifications; then the medical director, who was in place to provide oversight of the volunteers' basic life support function, quit. He has also never been paid, despite references to payments in the department's incomplete financial documents.

The termination paperwork also explained that volunteers had not responded to some emergency calls and had not followed protocol. According to emails to county commissioners, the department did not immediately respond to another serious medical call several weeks ago — just around the corner from the station.

The sole vote to keep the department came from Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who represents and lives in Hernando Beach. He has consistently supported the department through several years of controversies. After the vote Tuesday, he said the county has to take responsibility for letting the volunteer department deteriorate.

During Tuesday's meeting, Dukes made one more attempt to save the volunteer department by introducing the new chief — one of the department's former chiefs — Dan Chichester. He took over a couple of weeks ago when Chief David Murdock quit. But when Chichester took the microphone, he gave a mixed report on what was happening at the station.

While Chichester was confident he could build up the volunteers and reorganize the department to be effective again, he also said he did not know if there was a medical director, that he was gathering up financial paperwork scattered about the station, that none of the volunteers lived in the community and that, despite needing to have the oversight of a board of directors, the chief has been acting alone as the board.

Mike Carter, the auditor hired to try to get the Hernando Beach volunteers up to date on audits dating back two years, said there was no evidence the department ever filed paperwork to become a tax-exempt organization or ever filed reports that such organizations must file annually with the IRS. While the financial documents were due to the auditor in late December, many were still missing, he said. According to an email from Carter, the department had not turned in account reconciliations, check registers and board meeting minutes, among other documents.

Commissioner John Allocco said that he was concerned for public safety in Hernando Beach, and also about the liability the county might face for penalties, fees or fines because of the volunteers' missteps. County Attorney Garth Coller said that it was not the county, but Hernando Beach, which carried any liability.

Allocco asked how the county could determine the rates Hernando Beach residents have been paying for fire-rescue service if the financial records are in disarray.

Chichester said that the department had money in the past, but "the problem was it was mishandled.'' He added that what happened in the past wasn't as important as moving forward.

During the meeting, Champion looked up the volunteer department's corporation online and found that Murdock's name was still on state documents and that it was just a week ago that Chichester's name replaced that of former Chief David Freda, who was at the center of several controversies at the station, including questions about how he used his county gas card and drinking by firefighters at the station.

"The problem I have,'' Champion said, "is this corporation is a mess. . . . It sure doesn't look good.''

The future of the department has created a sharp divide in Hernando Beach, stretching back nearly two years. Efforts by Freda to create a more independent district failed after community opposition. Recently, the homeowners association's government affairs chairman, Chuck Greenwell, has been blasted by other neighbors as he has collected documents detailing the problems with the department.

Greenwell told commissioners Tuesday that, in the past, everyone knew there were problems, but the county would not take responsibility to fix them.

"There should be a criminal investigation,'' he said.

Other residents strongly supported keeping the volunteer service. Petitions supporting the department and signed by 200 residents were turned in. Service by the county, said resident John Paul Reeve, "sounds very expensive to me.'' He said he felt the county's position regarding the department had been "to sit back and let it sabotage itself.''

County Fire Chief Scott Hechler provided a detailed transition plan for commissioners, outlining plans to staff the station with an engine currently in Spring Hill. Existing volunteers who are interested will be worked into the county's volunteer program, Hechler told commissioners. There was no talk regarding how much the change will cost residents, but Hechler has said those discussions will be part of the county's budget process this summer.

The volunteer department has been in place since 1975 and covers Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn. In addition to fire service, the department was only qualified to provide basic life support, which, unlike advanced life support, did now allow the administration of most medications, the monitoring of heart rhythms and other medical procedures.