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Flagler’s Firefighting and Helicopter Costs Expose County Tensions Over Wants and Needs

| June 17, 2013

Flagler County Fire Flight in action last Thursday, picking up a trauma patient after a motorcycle wreck on U.S. 1. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County Fire Flight in action last Thursday, picking up a trauma patient after a motorcycle wreck on U.S. 1. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

In Brief: Looking at the near certainty of a tax increase, Flagler County Commissioners Monday continued to wrestle with a budget submitted by their administration that is adding to their costs rather than making it easier to fill a budget gap, or keep taxes from increasing. But the administration argues there’s no room for going cheap short of eliminating services.

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“Public safety is paramount for this board,” Flagler County Commissioner George Hanns said this morning, “and we will protect the public if they like it or not.” Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin spoke a variation of the same words.

The commission was analyzing next year’s firefighting and emergency helicopter budget, with expensive replacement costs that include a couple of SUVs and two ambulances, radios, breathing equipment and other items adding up to $823,000. The replacements are vital to keeping the operation current and safe, County Administrator Craig Coffey said.

But the numbers and the continuing budget crunch the county faces—with a minimum budget gap of $3 million to fill, and a wish list worth up to $8 million—triggered a discussion among commissioners about the possible, as opposed to the wishful, when the bottom line is almost inevitably a tax increase. The only difference will be the size of that tax increase.

“We have assets here that we’re allowing to diminish in the name of cutting some dollars here and there. We have to decide as a community what type of community we want to be,” and what level of services the county should provide, McLaughlin said. “Obviously no one is interested in being the gold standard for public service, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea in my mind to at least have a community that you look at and say, I’m glad I belong here and I’m willing to build upon the foundation placed there by others.” He acknowledged the price tag, and went as far as saying that he personally believed that “it’s incumbent upon every American to pay as few taxes as humanly possible or legally possible. That’s my basis in thinking when it comes to taxes, but I also recognize that I have to pay for the services that I get for the kind of community that I have.”

Regarding fire services, the significant fires in question this year are capital costs. The overall $8.4 million budget would remain flat, with a total of 83 people in the county’s fire department—among them 57 firefighter paramedics, 18 fire rescue lieutenants and three captains. The numbers haven’t changed for four years. But Coffey wants the commission to budget between $500,000 and $750,000 a year for capital spending.  Last year the commission budgeted $1 million. Half of it went to the new pumper truck, $246,000 for fire-fighting equipment, and $350,000 for a tanker truck (that $350,000 had actually been rolled over from the previous year).

Barbara Revels.

Barbara Revels.

“We’ve all proselytized as far as what we want to have and all our safety and things like that, but,” Revels said, “this is our opportunity to pick at a budget, and that’s the whole purpose of sitting through this rather than just saying, yes Mr. Coffey, we want all the upgrades that we’ve been kicking down the road. And when we sit through the budget hearing, because we know we have no new higher millage on any property coming forward, every single thing that we see in an add on here on every single page is increasing the millage rate.” She said the discussions must take place rather than be stuck on philosophical beliefs everyone can agree on.

“The discussions I’m having with the community, I’m hearing that we do want those things, and that the community is willing to pay for them,” McLaughlin said.

Commissioner Charlie Ericksen described the whole budgeting process as “flawed” and lacking direction to Coffey, when the commission as a group should be prioritizing its wants and submitting them to the administrator as a starting point, rather than taking his lists and picking through them. Other commissioners didn’t seize on the suggestion.

The trigger for the closer look at the firefighting budget was the planned replacement of vehicles, one of which—a GMC Sonoma SUV—has 89,000 miles on it. “A lot of people drive a vehicle to twice that length,” Revels said. “Every department we go through we’re seeing two and three and five vehicles replaced, and it’s going to really add up.” McLaughlin raised questions about another SUV on the replacement list, with 109,000 miles on it, until Commissioner Frank meeker told him that based on his Consumer Reports readings, the vehicle was likely needing replacement.

There were also questions about replacing an ambulance with 142,000 miles on it.

The county has 10 ambulances: six that operate on the front lines, and four that are held back as spares, placed in service during emergencies, special events and such to ensure that the entire county is properly covered. The ambulances listed for replacement, Revels noted, were marked as spares.

“If it’s a spare right now, I wouldn’t see replacing that, I would have to agree with the commissioner, so let’s get an answer for that one,” McLaughlin said.

“We have some questions that need to be answered but any time you prolong or put off putting a vehicle replacement,” Hanns said, “when you catch up it becomes more difficult, and you’re going to pay me now or pay me later. This is what because of these state mandates we keep putting things off, and when it’s time to catch up it’s very costly.” Hanns recommended going along with the submitted budget.

Commissioner Frank Meeker had another idea: inspecting the equipment the fire department wants to replace.

“When we had this exercise with the city I had them line up the trucks outside, I went out and walked through them, was looking at the rusted hulls through the frame,” Meeker said. “I mean, show me. Yeah. I was hesitant at first, then it convinced me in the end. I’m not sure, we probably have more vehicles than it’s worth lining up just to take a little walk through.”


Revels was not interested in creating a car lot full of such vehicles as it might waste employees’ time. The administration will send an email to commissioners and let them know when and where they may inspect the vehicles in question. Revels was curious about what instructions Coffey gave his departments.

Commissioners also discussed Fire Flight, the county’s emergency helicopter, which operates 12-hour shifts (from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), seven days a week, with two pilots sharing duties. (The helicopter’s $661,000 budget is separate from the fire department’s.)  After 8 p.m., Volusia County’s Air One is sometimes called in to pick up trauma patients or conduct law enforcement missions. Two questions regularly come up at budget time: whether to increase or scale back the helicopter’s hours, and whether its budget and mechanics are sound.

A new helicopter would cost $4 million. The current aircraft is worth $1 million, with just $250,000 set aside for its capital improvements. Commissioners don’t have to be convinced about the helicopter’s effectiveness, not just in ferrying trauma patients to Halifax hospital, but in battling fires, saving homes and other property, and assisting police in searches or chases. Some of those missions are reimbursed. Some are not: medical flights are usually paid back, but fighting fires and assisting police is part of the cost of keeping the helicopter available to the county’s public safety mix.

John Sowell, the chief pilot, told commissioners that converting to a 24-hour shift would pay for itself if the helicopter was called into service on medical missions once a week at night over 52 weeks, which would generate close to half a million dollars.

Fire Chief Don Petito said it’s a risk. “We could go a month without having a night flight, or we could have a lot of night flight,” he said. “It’s not a guaranteed revenue.”

Jane Gentile-Youd, a Plantation Bay resident, addressed the commission this morning after hearing the public safety discussion. She quoted Hanns’s and McLaughlin’s words about making public safety paramount, only to cast doubt on those declarations when, in her view, the county is not providing all it can. Her suggestion: add a pilot and extent Fire Flight’s hours.

“Please,” Gentile-Youd said, “ put back that other pilot, that means more to me than new trucks or anything else. I want to know if I’m in a life emergency, you can land in my whole back yard at Plantation Bay, I have a whole acre.”

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17 Responses for “Flagler’s Firefighting and Helicopter Costs Expose County Tensions Over Wants and Needs”

  1. Tillie says:

    With all the REAR END collisions happening at the “illegal camera’s” intersections, we are going to need about 3 more of these helicopters and equipment to keep up with all the injured.

  2. InformedCitizen says:

    “Obviously no one is interested in being the gold standard for public service…” As said by Commioner McLaughlin is far from true! Stop by any county fire station and talk with the men and women that provide public service and see what they have to say. They’re providing a high standard of service, maybe not golden, but as close as they can be given the economic times. Each and every one of them will show you they will be nothing short of golden to help someone in need. They are doing more with less equipment, not too mention less pay then five years prior. Some of you may remember the four or five county fire medics who went overseas and proved to the world they are the GOLD standard when it comes to EMS, well confifently that applies to every member of that department, and they ain’t so bad at fighting those fires either. You see on the news every year the homes lost in other counties from wildfires. Well, news for you that happens seldomly here in Flagler, mostly due to that Helicopter that is also constantly under scrutiny. I understand public safety is a drain on the county’s budget, however it highly unlikely to ever hear someone complain about how expensive that fire truck is, or how much (actually how little) those firefighters, and paramedics make a day, because those who have those complaints have never needed those services, and one day even given their opinion of those men and women they will be there, and they will treat you as if you’re their family. I’m not saying go and spend 51% of the tax base on public safety, but it is absolutely absurd to consider cutting/downsizing, or not replacing vital equipment to a service that is already working below minimum staffing, stretched thin to the max. Especially when you consider those who are doing it, are doing so by putting their lives on the line for total strangers, and they do it day in, and day out. I wouldn’t want to be that Fire Chief explaining to an influential politic why their family member didn’t recieve an emergency helicopter transport because it was after 8 PM, or to that firefighter’s wife that her husband passed away in a fire, because the county commissoners thought he could do safely his same duties with only 2 people on his fire engine, as opposed to the standard minimum of 3. Yeah, that’s a real thing! Considering decreasing all fire trucks from 3 firefighters to 2. Not acceptable.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Are the commissioners so dense that you don’t see that replacing a spare ambulance is that the new one would go to the front line and an aging ambulance would move to spare? Replacing a spare ambulance does not mean it will sit in storage as a spare…address the bigger issues like a truck the Sonoma truck (not an SUV) that is only used for training being replaced…it can probably last a little longer, but the front line trucks need to be moved to spares and new equipment needs to be put in its place – I for one do not want to see an ambulance on the side of the road because necessary replacements were not made in a timely manner.

    Yes it is a risk to put the helicopter to 24 hours. However, one month of several calls will help fill in budget gaps when there are no calls. Air One has been called quite frequently since the helicopter went to 12 hour shifts. Looking at the yearly budget and not a monthly budget will offset the profit and losses each month.

  4. Dennis McDonald says:

    Here is an opportunity to as they say ” to see the future, turn around and look at the past ” and the past is a cost over run the Commission would like to forget. So why not pick up on what Ericson “the new guy” has to offer. He is the ONLY one on the CC with a lifelong history of real world budgeting to achieve results he was personally responsible for. I know that is foreign thinking to most in the Big Green Dome but why not try it so you can see how the paying public operates.
    As for the comment that people are saying they want services and are willing to pay for them, you might want to recheck with them as the majority said NO as recently as June 7 !
    The thought that the Commissioner Meeker consulted with Consumers reports and believes a late model SUV is likely in need of replacement if it has 109,000 miles is the sign of a true bureaucrat. When he had the Firemen lineup the City trucks did he ask why they had holes in the frames and we are in FLORIDA ? Meeker needs to spend Saturday morning at Palm Coast Ford and have John Rue show him the vehicles coming in for service with 200,000 to 300,000 miles on them. Since when did Consumers become our guiding light ?
    Would I be correct in thinking that spending $1,230,000 for a old hospital that is in similar condition to those trucks Frank Meeker inspected for Palm Coast would be irresponsible and an insult to the Taxpayers of Flagler. Especially when there is a County owned 5.5 acre property directly across the street from the “dome” that is costing us $70k per year to keep in mothballs as the most architecturally insignificant municipal building in Bunnell. It’s ripe for the wrecking ball !

    • FRANK DILIBERTO says:

      I warned you about Mr. Meeker. Way, way way, out of touch.
      Remember this when re-election time rolls around.

  5. tax payer says:

    The City of Palm Coast just gave firefighters a COLA and a Merit raise… I hope the County is getting some of that red light camera money too.

  6. confidential says:

    The Flagler County Commissioners make the most outrageous comments while even lying that residents want their taxes raised, if is to reassure safety. Whom did you talk to Nate? Are you aware that 62% of our students in the Flagler Schools are in subsidized reduced or free school lunches/meals because their parents insufficient income make them eligible? Have you bother to find out the poverty rate level in Flagler County? All of you five now want to justify raising our taxes bowing to Coffey with total disregard to the sad economic facts of most families barely able to make ends meet. Easy to do that from your comfortable almost 50,000 commissioners compensation. Demanding to raise our taxes while wasting money on an old inhabitable hospital building shamefully overpriced for the benefit of few. On a useless Plantatio Bay utility dor which Martinez was let goin Bunnell, in my view. Have the nerve to want larger budgets and more personnel for the legal;, engineering, fleet and administration…For what …in this stagnant economy. with no growth and no jobs..The BOCC needs to stop the lies, the rubber stamping and place some restrain in the administrators demands, running loose into our pockets! Do not cut the services to the taxpayers, cut the administrative waste. No cuts of hours of the only choper we count with. Want to cut the emergency personnel but increase the legal, engineering, fleet and administrators? Do the commissioners rubber stamp it? Are you going to hear and do what we the people want ,or you are going the way of the School Board too?

  7. Blueboy says:

    “John Sowell, the chief pilot, told commissioners that converting to a 24-hour shift would pay for itself if the helicopter was called into service on medical missions once a week at night over 52 weeks, which would generate close to half a million dollars.”

    Wow! Almost $10,000 for each trip!! Who pays for that?

    I know of people who were in auto accidents who needed just a plain-jane ambulance ride for the 2 or 3 mile trip to a hospital but were charged more than $7K for emergency helo service that they did not request or even need. They did not get the choice and still they were stuck with an egregious bill. This outrageous expense is forced on people without regard to necessity or ability to pay. Talk about rifling the pockets of an accident victim!

    We have a good hospital within the town limits, so why is this necessary?

    Follow the money.

    • Jennifer S. says:

      interesting thought process there blueboy…. you know, those stuck with the seemingly egregious emergency transport bills are ALIVE to speak about it. if you are capable of speaking for yourself after a traumatic accident you are always welcome to deny medical services.

    • Just Sayin' says:

      you have absolutely NO idea what you are talking about…That helicopter is only called out for flights when certain criteria, set by the state, are met…and when it is absolutely necessary to SAVE A LIFE…

      This is the problem when people who are truly uneducated about the issues are allowed to vote.

    • Anonymous says:

      We have a “good hospital” within the town limits….. Really????? I would not be comfortable at all having one of my loved ones in that place, especially in an emergency. It just got a “C” rating!

    • Informed Citizen says:

      You’re misinformed we do not have good hopsital in the county. Patient’s that recieve the helicopter generally have suffered a potentially life threatening injury, and need a trauma surgeoun who most closely located is at Halifax in Daytona, or the patient needs to go as far as Orlando or Jacksonville. As well as the local hospital transfers patient’s by that helicopter almost as often as the fire departments do. That is an expensive bill for anybody, I agree, however the decisision to use it is made by highly educated professionals working in the best interest of that person.

  8. Bunnell Resident says:

    I think the county should put revenue cameras all over Palm Coast at the exact same intersections Palm Coast has theirs. That way, each citizen will get double ticketed! After all the last time I checked all of Palm Coast lies within Flagler County. Just being sarcastic of course. :-)

  9. Initialjoe says:

    I think it’s ok to let trucks age as long as the maintenance is kept up. The diesels in the ambulances are known to go hundreds of thousands of miles. The trucks, should be replaced with Diesels so that you don’t need to replace them as often. Also, consider buying more reliable than GMC…Toyota Maybe? Keep it American.

    Also, the helicopter is a necessity. I would rather not bleed out internally faster than I can get to the hospital because of traffic.

    I think the Commissioners are doing great in apparently going line by line. Now, if only they could make a decision haha.

  10. Anonymous says:

    We have a “good hospital” within the town limits….. Really????? I would not be comfortable at all having one of my loved ones in that place, especially in an emergency. It just got a “C” rating!

  11. Flaglerresident says:

    I would like to address a couple things here that appear to be relevant to this topic.

    Donald, these vehicles that are used for public safety do not operate, and are not driven like your daily driver is driven, nor are they driven on the same stable roadways your daily driver is operated on 100% of the time. 150,000 miles on these vehicles are equivalent to 250,000 miles of your daily driver. While they may be maintained on a regular maintenance schedule that far exceeds the best weekend warrior; these things are beat and worn out by the time they get 150,000 miles on them. When they lack being dependable, they need to be replaced immediately. Do you want to know that the vehicle that is coming to rescue you while you are having a heart attack or your house is on fire is not 100% dependable? I am not saying these vehicle are broken down all the time because I am sure the Chief has a pretty good idea from his staff when a vehicle is getting worn out.

    With the recent economy dump, all fire departments across the country have extended the life of emergency apparatus further than they were ever intended for as a dependable front line apparatus. In doing so, maintenance costs are driven up because now you are replacing parts that you have never replaced before while buying proverbial time until the inevitable occurs; the vehicle is no longer worthy of front line status.

    Donald, I am not saying you are wrong about having the vehicles on the roadway with 200,000 miles in operation, but any Chief or administrator must realize they are making risks available to an already risky business. There is nothing comparable to the wear and tear these vehicle attain except maybe Monster Jam or NASCAR (they seem to replace their equipment on a regular basis)!

    Another fact that you are lacking is the knowledge to understand emergency apparatus are custom built vehicles and are not produced on a production line (support vehicles that are manufactured by Chevy and Ford obviously are exempt from this). While I have been in this business for a long time, I have learned these custom built vehicles are not always superior and have issues that are not worked out like production vehicles that we all drive daily. For whatever reason (tradition, and only tradition, no sense whatsoever) these fire apparatus manufactures do not have production vehicles and each apparatus is different. They truly are not built to withstand the test of time.

    Mrs. Revels- as stated above, they would not (hopefully) be buying a new vehicle to sit on a the sideline. The last thing you want to do is buy all new vehicles at the same time. This would not be a very sound financial decision as you would be replacing vehicles at the same time every 6-8 years and would prove very costly in those years. Staggering these purchase would allow for replacements to be purchased and then to have a reliable “spare” ambulance/fire truck for maintenance and other unforeseen circumstances.

    This is an education thing for Mrs. Revels. Someone, the county administrator, should possibly enlighten her on this so the people do not make harsh comments about her as stated above.

    Helicopter-

    I would gladly pay an increase in my taxes for this to operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, especially during the peak months of the year (fire season, tourist peaks, and etc…). This would possibly give a better idea as to what the potential income and cost associated with its operation. While emergencies cannot be predicted, trends can be followed according to call volumes over the course of a couple years.

    The helicopter is paramount to fighting fires in the woods that are not accessible by land and make a big difference quickly. There should be no consideration whatsoever to cut this back. Of all the communities in FL, ours can relate from the past as to why. If you ever question why we need this, think back to 1998 and to 1989. Was the helicopter in service back then? The trauma transports are an added benefit seeing how there is not a hospital in our community that is able to handle a moderate motor vehicle accident, let alone one that requires a trauma surgeon.

    One last thing, while I do not work for this community, I am very proud of the first responders here. They have proven themselves not just to us, the citizens, but to the world they are are first class. We as a community should be very proud of this and acknowledge these accomplishments. I cannot understand why a politician of a community would not want the “Golden standard!” The seed for the “Golden Standard” has been planted here, all you have to do is water and fertilize it. I have no problem with paying for these services even though I never utilize them and it would probably benefit a fellow citizen before it would ever benefit me.

  12. confidential says:

    Would suggest to BOCC to get the magnifying glass like the school board just did and dissect those half a millon more or less contracts laying around Coffey’s desk and stop him from signing them. How many of those around, for overpriced consultants? Also cut down in high paid administrators (80,000 and up salaries) that witnesses tell are going around in the county facilities with their hands on their pockets day in and day out.

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