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DeWitt: Time to break with tradition, and the Brooksville Fire Department

Brooksville, 1/9/2005. This fire quickly spread through a free standing double car garage located at 16340 Wiscon Rd. Sunday afternoon about 3:15 p.m. The Hernando County Fire Department responded to the blaze which was quickly extinguished. No one was injured, but the building and it's contents were heavily damaged. The fire department is investigating the cause.
Published Oct. 5, 2016

Even more than most small towns, Brooksville loves its Fire Department.

The city was plagued by arsonists in its early years, and the volunteers who formed the Brooksville Fire Department in 1912 were local heroes.

How big of a deal was it when the truck rolled out, sirens blaring? Go to the site of the old station on S Brooksville Avenue and you'll find a mural commemorating the scene.

Yes, it's a great tradition. But judging from comments at Monday night's City Council meeting, it's not a great department.

The council, which responded to the alarming evidence of a divided, inexperienced outfit with a collective shrug, should show an urgency worthy of those old volunteers.

What they need to do, what they should have done years ago, is pull the plug on the department and turn the service over to the more experienced, better trained and probably cheaper hands of Hernando County Fire Rescue.

This has become an issue again because Chief David Freda recently fired two experienced firefighters — just a few months after he fired another seasoned employee, Hillary Sanford, the department's first female captain and driver.

Nanette Day, who is a family member of one of the firefighters and who presented their arguments Monday before a packed and supportive chamber, described a force so thinly qualified that, even now, it doesn't function as an independent, full-service department.

The National Fire Protection Association sets a recommended minimum for the number of firefighters who should be on the scene within eight minutes of a report of a structure fire: 15.

The only way Brooksville, with 14 firefighters, could meet that recommendation, she said, would be to call out its secretary.

It also depends on the county to handle advanced life-support calls, either with county fire trucks, which, unlike the city's, are all staffed with at least one paramedic, or the countywide ambulance service that city residents already pay for.

As for the makeup of the 14 firefighters, about half have less than a year of experience as paid firefighters, and several of them previously worked with Freda at Hernando Beach, Day said, a situation confirmed by Joe Keefer, head of the department's firefighters union.

It seems as if the experienced crew is being cleared out to make way for new hires loyal to Freda, Day and Keefer said.

Even more worrisome than Day's presentation was the one from Nick Moulton, head of the county firefighters union.

He said his guys didn't feel safe working with the current crew from the city.

City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha responded for Freda, who declined to comment. No preference has been shown for new hires, she said. And terminating two firefighters accused of severe violations of policy won't hurt service, but improve it.

One of those firefighters (both of whom are appealing their terminations) was let go for defying orders, another for showing up drunk for the start of his shift. At 8 a.m.

Okay, but I'm not sure it makes much of a case for keeping the department. Yes, it's a place where people get fired for insubordination and showing up drunk, but it's also a place where that stuff still happens. And where, a couple of years ago, a captain — who also appeared to be drunk — took a fire truck on a late-night joy ride.

That happened before Freda was promoted in March. But I don't think his promotion exactly sent the message that there's a new sheriff in town.

As Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt wrote when he took over:

"Freda faced scrutiny in Hernando Beach for the use of gasoline cards, allegations of alcohol consumption at the fire department and failure to get a contract signed with the department's medical director."

Norman-Vacha has another argument: Eliminating the department would cost residents, forcing them to pay the county's higher flat fire fee, $185. And that doesn't even cover the full cost of the county department, she said, meaning the fee will likely climb in the future.

I'm not convinced.

Without getting into all of the complications of Brooksville's fee — a combination of a flat rate and an assessment on any improvements on the property — I can tell you that if your house is valued at more than about $70,000, you'd pay a higher fee in the city than in the county.

And speaking of fees that don't cover costs, $903,000 of the $1.7 million budget for the city department comes from the general fund. That means that more than half its cost is tucked away in your city property tax bill.

So, I don't think it would cost the city to turn things over to the county. And judging by the county's takeover of Spring Hill Fire Rescue three years ago, most of the firefighters would keep their jobs.

What would be lost is a lot of ugly internal politics and a potentially dangerous lack of experience.

Yes, it would mean the end of a tradition. But for that, we have the mural.

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