TAMPA — It's been more than a decade since Hillsborough County Fire Rescue officials first warned that the county's booming population growth would exceed their ability to provide emergency services.
The alarm was sounded once again at Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting. Union officials and dozens of firefighters urged commissioners to build at least one new fire station a year over the next 25 to 30 years to meet the needs of rapidly growing communities.
Union spokesman Travis Horn told the commission that "first responders are handling calls at a frenetic pace."
"They're out there day and night,'' he said. "Simply building one fire station over the last decade and rebuilding another is not enough to keep pace with the growth we've seen."
The county is already struggling to meet national emergency response benchmarks, records show. Rescue personnel responded to an emergency in less than 7 minutes about 55 percent of the time in 2017, according to the most recent figures.
County staff has set a goal of responding to 90 percent of calls within 4 to 6 minutes. But that would require the construction of 25 to 30 new fire stations throughout the county, said International Association of Firefighters Local 2294 president Derrick Ryan. That is the union that represents Hillsborough's firefighters.
"I'm telling you right now, doing this business for 12 years, you have never seen us gather before the (commission) like we're doing today and begging for resources," Ryan said. "We're at that point where we are nervous for the citizens of this county, all over Hillsborough County."
The biggest need is in south county, in communities near the Brandon and Bloomingdale areas. Hillsborough Fire Chief Dennis Jones said the department has placed the highest priority on building a new fire station in north Sun City Center — an area that will require five new fire stations to handle the population growth there. The second highest priority is building a station near W Sligh Avenue and Anderson Road in Town 'N' Country, the chief said.
"But the areas of need are all over the county," Jones told the Tampa Bay Times. "There's always a shortage of funds and I trust that the board will make the right decision in supporting the fire rescue department and the services we provide."
Fire Rescue officials first identified an urgent need for additional fire stations in the county's 2003 fire rescue master plan — which has been updated and resubmitted to the commission in 2007, 2011, and 2017.
The initial plan called for building 32 new fire stations in the county by 2015. Instead, the county built just five, bringing the total to 42.
When that study was presented a decade ago, Ryan said Fire Rescue received an average of about 80,000 calls for service annually. Last year, Hillsborough firefighters responded to 110,000 calls.
The county has built just one new fire station in the past decade, an additional station in the FishHawk Ranch area.
"That's crazy," Ryan said. "We should have had 20 fire stations within that time frame. We have to keep up with the growth."
A private contractor was recently hired to update fire rescue's master plan yet again, Jones said. Meanwhile Fire Rescue is figuring out ways to stretch itself across the county. The chief said his department developed a floating fleet of "squad" rescue cars comprised of two firefighter-paramedics who move from station to station depending on need. They can help alleviate the pressure medical calls place on its fire engines, because those make up 85 percent of all calls.
"They can't transport, they can't put out fires, but they're very nimble and can respond quickly," Jones said. "We're also looking at putting multiple units in the same station in places where we could use additional response capability, but we're limited by the size of our stations and the available sleeping space and living space, so it's not an issue with a single fix."
Commissioner Stacy White asked county budget staff to research the possibility of increasing fire impact fees, charging developers to help pay for new fire stations. A previous study "definitely suggested that fire impact fees could be raised," White said. "I think this is a golden opportunity to look at it and start those discussions."
But expanding firefighting resources would be expensive. Adding one new rescue vehicle to the fleet would cost about $1 million each year, Jones said. In 2017, officials estimated building, staffing and equipping 25 new fire stations would cost an extra $20 million a year through 2031.
"(Past commissions were) aware of it, they liked what I presented previously, and they agreed with it," Jones said. "They didn't have any challenges to it. It just has not yet been funded."
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