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Flagler County Adds a 7th Ambulance Unit But Reduces Staffing on Some Fire Engines, Triggering Concerns

| May 29, 2014

How many firefighters on each engine? The question has raised concerns and fears among some in the county, but the fears are misplaced, the county administration says. (© FlaglerLive)

How many firefighters on each engine? The question has raised concerns and fears among some in the county, but the fears are misplaced, the county administration says. (© FlaglerLive)

For the past several weeks word has been spreading that Flagler County Fire Rescue is cutting the number of firefighters on engines from three per engine to two. The concern has rippled through emails to county commissioners and the county administrator, at community association meetings, especially in the Hammock, in a strong-worded appearance by the firefighter union’s president before the county commission earlier this month, and a in “cease and desist” letter from that president to Don Petito, the county’s fire chief.

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In fact, starting on May 20, the county has made a significant but limited tactical change in its staffing formulas: it is, on occasions, reducing the number of firefighters on fire engines from three to two at Station 41 in the Hammock and at Station 16 near Halifax Plantation. Engine 92 at the station of that number by the county airport remains with three firefighters.

But the change is not a “cut” in personnel. It is designed as an expansion of ambulance service throughout the county. It has enabled the addition of a seventh ambulance unit, thus reducing response time throughout the county, providing for more sustained coverage of the perennially underserved west side (with an ambulance stationed at Espanola called east less often), and reducing the number of times the county has had to call on Volusia and St. Johns rescue units for aide.

“In theory you still have the same amount of staffing on shift, but you’re reallocating them from an engine to an ambulance,” Petito said. “The situation were in now is not the ideal situation, but it’s the best fix we have at this point. He added: “The med calls have increased tremendously over the past year,  we have to start covering them somehow.”

Adding Three Firefighters in 2015

And the change is temporary. Whether because of union or public pressure or because it was part of the county’s strategic plan all along, County Administrator Craig Coffey is recommending that the commission approve the addition of three new firefighters next year, at a cost of $210,000, and hopes of adding three more the year after, thus restoring all engines to three-man status.

“There was a concern about taking someone off an engine,” Coffey told the commission earlier this week. “The reality is, you’re not. There’s a misnomer out there, the public I think in some cases thought we were cutting somebody. We’re not cutting a single person. We’re just reallocating resources to about 85 percent of your calls, which is medical, and this,” meaning the hiring of three additional firefighters this year and possibly three more next year, “will essentially put one person back, and slowly adjust that.”

Flagler firefighters in 2013 answered a total of 14,062 calls. Of those, 12,374, or 88 percent were medical calls, according to the fire department’s annual report (see the full report below). The rest (1,688) were fire calls. The number of fire calls has remained relatively steady over the past 10 years, averaging 1,700 a year. The number of medical calls have been surging. Last year’s total was an 11 percent increase over the previous year, and a 33 percent increase over the total in 2004.

“You don’t want to have resources sitting back at the station when you have real-life emergencies every day,” Coffey said, citing the fact that with over 85 percent of calls being medical, the number compelled the switch of personnel to address the area of greater need.

The two-man staffing of fire engines officially started on May 20, but the department had been doing it by necessity before that because it’s been down by five positions, forcing the shuffling. Even so, the reduction isn’t always a constant: today, for example, there are three firefighters on Engine 92 at all times, three on Engine 41 for half the day and two the other half, and two all day at Station 16, Petito said.

The Union’s Stance on Safety

Appearing before the county commission earlier this month, Stephen Palmer, president of the Flagler County Professional Firefighters Association, the firefighters’ union, described the addition of an ambulance unit at Station 31 in Korona and acknowledged the growing number of medical calls. But, he said, the union believes the addition of an ambulance unit “is being facilitated in a dangerous manner.” Staffing Station 31 as the county is doing now “is not only irresponsible, it is unsafe and places the citizens and the crews at greater risk,” he said.

The reason: numerous studies and experience have shown that reduced staffing on fire engines reduces the effectiveness of firefighting, with five-person crews being the most effective way to fight fires (in Florida, only Miami and one other fire department have five-person crews). But innumerable fire departments, including Volusia’s, have gone to two-men engines, simply because of budgetary constraints and the need to provide maximum coverage with limited resources. “Statistically, we are already overmatched, and now it is being suggested we do even more work with fewer people,” Palmer said.

The three-man minimum has a lot to do with firefighting techniques at fire scenes, where an engine of three firefighter allows two of the firefighters to go into a structure on fire, leaving one behind to supervise the scene, whereas it would be unsafe for the firefighters to either have one go in alone or to have two go in without a third outside. The administration does not dispute those techniques, nor does it expect the techniques not to be applied at fire scenes. But “the reality,” Coffey said, is different, when fires typically and routinely draw the response of both county and city fire engines, often of two cities, sometimes three, thus enabling the firefighting to be conducted efficiently and safely, with numerous firefighters at the ready.

To the union, that does not account for the emergency situations where immediate action may be necessary by the first engine at the scene, when early action is critical. “We fully support the addition of a rescue,” Palmer said. “However, we must nor support placing lives at risk and decreasing the level of protection we can safely provide. We cannot support standing in front of a burning home waiting fo the backups because we do not have the manpower present to initiate an attack. Decreasing staffing is a huge step backwards for this agency in efficiency, safety and overall morale.”

Palmer provides this analogy: “That’s like telling a family of six going on a trip that removing one of their seat belts is an acceptable risk.”

Coffey says the analogy is incomplete. “The reality,” he said, the reality “is you’re leaving three or four unbuckled on the medical side.” He added: “If you’re facing cancer and a common cold, which one are you going to address first? The one that’s going to kill you,” cancer in this equation being the number of medical calls that dominate firefighters’ logs.

Palmer’s position has found support from Frank Meeker, the county commissioner.

“My position has been for a long time, I kind of agree with the NFPA guidelines, I like three and two, three on an engine, two on an ambulance,” Meeker said, referring to the National Fire Protection Association. “I think there’s reasonable ground to insist that we get back to that standard throughout the county.” He added: “If I’m looking at an engine, I prefer to see three. Now, I’m one of five votes, and having gone through two major fires since moving here,” in the 1980s and 1998, “I know the value of having good support from the fire department.”

Ideal vs. Reality

He addressed the matter in an email to a resident, Tonya Gordon, who sent a critical letter to the commissioners, saying that “cutting fire and med unit [personnel] isn’t going to help our county. […]And we don’t need one of our men getting hurt, just because we don’t want to pay more taxes, or feel other things are more important. There has to be something that can be done.”

Craig Coffey (© FlaglerLive)

Craig Coffey (© FlaglerLive)

Rejecting the notion that anyone is being “cut,” Coffey said that in absolutely ideal situations, 11 firefighters should be responding to a fire, with a minimum of five people on an engine—something unfeasible in Flagler. “The Chief has told me the officers believe this is the best current solution, with the resources available, to address the most serious problems we face. Everyone involved would like more people (Commissioners, Me, Fire Leadership, Union),” Coffey wrote. “However, what we have tried to do is phase in more personnel over time so that we can minimize tax impacts and provide the best service we can.”

With the Flagler County Sheriff about to ask for a $1 million increase in his budget, the county is limited in how many firefighters it can add to its staff of 75.

The relationship between the union and the county administration has been cordial and effective, and this issue, despite the cease and desist letter, is not changing that. There are no plans afoot to be more confrontational, but Palmer is not giving up. “What we want is three-men engines, exactly what we had before,” he said, “and two men rescue, and obviously we need that other rescue added online, we’ve acknowledged that, but to rob peter to pay Paul to do it is not the way.”

The pressure may be working, if it’s led the administration and commissioners to concede that an additional ambulance is needed—and additional firefighters as well.

A New Station For the West Side

The county commission is approving plans for a new, complete fire station on the west side. No site has been found for it, but the administration has been looking. One place it’s looked is the Eva Richardson property at the corner of State Road 100 and County Road 305, not far from the Mondex. The property has a barn-like building on it, but the building doesn’t have utilities, and the property owner’s asking price is $1 million—“way too high,” Coffey said, even though the property, ideally situated, may still be an option. The building, he said, “could be converted, but not for $1 million, it’s not cost effective. It won’t work.”

Meanwhile, Coffey said the county may work toward temporarily retrofitting Station 71, St. Johns Park, south of the Mondex, to make it inhabitable and fully staffed within six months, until a more permanent home for a west-side fire station is built or found.

Of the more immediate issue of staffing to make that additional station possible, the county administrator said: “No one disagrees with the general premise of we can always use more personnel and that we should staff at least three on these rigs. No one disagrees with that if resources were plentiful and unlimited. But the reality is we have to do this incrementally over time so we don’t grow an overly large department because we’re not yet out of the woods with our economic situation.”


Flagler County Fire Rescue Annual Report 2013

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14 Responses for “Flagler County Adds a 7th Ambulance Unit But Reduces Staffing on Some Fire Engines, Triggering Concerns”

  1. Jay Adams says:

    Lol firefighters can’t even stay the night at station 31, rescue 31 spends the night in quarters at station 16. Poor thinking on the county’s part.

  2. Jennifer says:

    So the county rushed to put an ambulance in service and yet it is not based in either of the locations mentioned in the story. The Korona station is uninhabitable at the moment after forcing the crews to go there. There is no place to put them in the west end, unless they go to station 71. The crews have lately been based at Station 16 on the Volusia county line because they cannot use Korona….how does that currently help the west end?

    Coffey mentions cost…because that is a good scare tactic in his mind…however, how much does a human life cost?

    He mentions cancer versus cold…if left untreated the cold may kill you before the cancer does. 85% of calls are medical based. However, as the medical director stated in EMS week, calls have increased overall 12% in the last few years, but staffing has not increased that 12%. In truth, yes the county makes its money on medical calls – emergency and/or non-emergency transports. However if a fire represents a “cold” that cold can develop into bronchitis, strep, pneumonia over time. In 1998 Flagler county has mandatorily evacuated because of brush fires…the only county in the state. That prompted the addition of the fire service to Flagler county. In 2011, Flagler County firefighters worked mandatory 36-hour shifts to keep the wildfires at bay. We have had two years or rainy seasons to keep the threat of brush fires at a minimum, but don’t expect that trend to continue indefinitely.

    The cold will eventually manifest into something more threatening and once again – how much is a human life worth? A person trapped in a house fire, too frail to get to the door and crews must wait for back up – how much is that person worth to the family, the county? A child plays with matches and is trapped by the fire – do you think the firefighters responding will wait for back up – how much is the child’s life and/or those going to save him worth?

    Also don’t forget these engines respond to auto accidents, water rescue and other emergencies with the ambulances. Engine 16 frequently works I-95. They don’t just wait to fight a fire or 12% of the calls…they are not inactive as Coffey is trying to portray. Hire the people needed to make the additional ambulance beneficial to the citizens of Flagler County.

  3. orphan says:

    Based on the criticalness of these notions being bandied about, I say, “RAISE THE TAXES”.
    We’re speaking of human lives hanging in the balance on every call made to our fire departments -(911).
    What the devil can a few pennies a week or month make to ANYONE when it comes to saving your life or your home/property? I can think of NOTHING as important as this fire/rescue issue-NOTHING!
    Raise all of our taxes by a few pennies, and if it comes down to it, don’t let it get to the voters-just make it happen!
    I’ll be hated for this but I really don’t give a rat’s patooie! There!
    We need much LESS me me me and MORE thinking from people who aren’t brain dead to the fact that there really IS a world out here where YOU might just be the next statistic.
    At best it would appear that our commissioners are addressing this issue as best they can under today’s budget. Good on them!

  4. gramps212 says:

    So lets raise taxes giving the county more money to spend frivolously (new Sheriff’s office at old hospital, unneeded radio upgrades/replacement, jail expansion, new this-new that, & the Sheriff is getting ready to ask for another $1m??). How about cutting some of the Fat upstairs and putting that money in the pot for new workers, not just ask for more money. So much misappropriation of funds & no common sense. I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes if the money was spent wisely & where it was supposed to.

    First responders are a necessity & last time I checked county admins making over $100k can’t (or don’t) save lives regularly, let alone work 24hr shifts. If I had a choice between a pencil pusher & an extra person on an engine, that’s a no-brainer. Get your priorities (for the citizens) straight.

  5. Robert Lewis says:

    Why are we sending ambulances out of the county? In stead of having our ambulances go out of county to bring people to other hospitals, they should be responding to 911 emergencies. They should allow the private sector ambulance business to transport between facilities. It seems that government has overstepped it’s jurisdiction again and got into a business they have no part of.

    I want my ambulances to go to 911 calls. Not transporting people to other hospitals because the local hospital is incapable. Seems like wasteful spending.

  6. Old firefighter says:

    The main reason that they don’t want to raise taxes this year is that it is election year. They couldn’t care less as long as they get re-elected. We might think of decreasing Craig’s staff and let him do all his own typing and filing, much like the fire chief has to do. Jim Landon doesn’t have an assistant why does Craig.

  7. confidential says:

    There is something that as taxpayer I would like to be clarified to me and all, by the county.
    I understand that our ambulances are always busy driving patients out of the county…and at very high fees…where all that money goes? They do it for the revenue…so were that revenue is accounted for?
    Because I bet did not pay for the new ambulance. Those out of county transports including personnel hours on them are taxpayers sustained too …then were the profits go?
    Those trips are not mandatory, but done for profit and when we need the ambulances for servicing the Flagler County taxpayers sometimes they have to wait as none are available. Can commissioners clarify and account for those elected out of county trip revenues?

  8. Dennis McDonald says:

    The Flagler County Board of County Commissioners wastes our Tax Dollars on projects like $1.23 Million for the old hospital [verticle junk yard]l. We own 5 acres directly across the street from the County Court House at the old jail OR a Court House Annex that the BOCC spent Tax Dollars preparing for the New Sheriffs HQ then switched tracks to the Bunnell “give away” leaving us with 110,000 square feet of uninhabitable County space, all while failing to concentrate on CORE SERVICES !

    Dennis McDonald

  9. Just sayin says:

    Citizens need to be held accountable also. People call the ambulance for a common cold or something very minor that they should go to their primary care for and it clogs up the system. The ambulance is their personal transportation system and it is just not right. When this happens these kind of things will happen so people take some responsibility!!

  10. Frank says:

    If money is the issue why not just save money on taxes by handing over the County Fire Department which is apparently almost all ambulances anyway to the Palm Coast Fire Department then maybe you will have enough people to cover everything. Coffee shouldn’t be able to roll the dice on who lives and dies just so the county can save a buck where he wasted it in other areas. If taxes need to be raised stand up and do what you have to do, Do not skim on the boys on the street there job is tough enough with 3 on an engine. Ask the families of the firefighters their wives, kids, mothers and fathers if safety should matter with their family member that provides for the house. An Engine pulls up on an accident on I-95 if only 2 firefighters are on the truck they need to get the occupants out of the vehicle , who is there to lookout for the 2 that are working trying to save a life ? Its not only about the fire calls they respond to its everything else that they run off to without delay and with little regard for themselves when they are needed. Coffee Trim the fat not the meat and potatoes.

    • JR says:

      The arrogance of Palm Coast residents like yourself is… The county administrator isn’t “roll[ing] the dice on who lives and [who] dies.” He’s funding the county fire department as he best can, and Chief Petito is managing his staff to put the most resources where they are needed. More to this county exists than just Palm Coast.I guess your solution would be to pull the resources that cover the county to only cover Palm Coast? Which already, according to the department’s report for 2013, consists of 67 percent of the emergency responses by the county, and Palm Coast has it’s own fire department. And most calls are responded to by not only multiple agencies, but by both engines and ambulances from the county, so there are already more than two firefighters on the scene.

  11. confidential says:

    Wholly agree with Frank above!
    Coffee waste our taxpayers funds in derelict contaminated old hospitals and useless overpriced utilities to benefit the elite sellers and now cuts our firemen 2 to an engine services. When are we going to stand up and demand for what is ours, our services and the jobs needed to fulfill them that we all pay in advance for?

  12. Lin says:

    I’d like to know what the other Commissioners feel about the loss of firefighters on the trucks in their districts to staff another area
    Don’t get me wrong, if we need more firefighters we should provide good coverage for the whole county and hire the 3 firefighters we need. We are asking for trouble with only 2
    Spend wisely not on broken down old hospital and water company and not on non–priority things like flowers and paths
    Just seems politically motivated

  13. Ron Boyce says:

    The State of Florida adopted the OSHA requirement rule two in two out. Our county firefighters must act in compliance. Flagler county is putting the lives of civilians in danger and our first responders. The county should be evaluating ways to increase revenue thru inspections.

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