A strategic plan in the works for the Flagler County Fire Department finds its ranks lacking pride in their department, poor communication up and down the chain of command, low morale, leadership issues, poor recruitment and retention of employees, and poor facilities, among other issues. The draft report also finds a critical need for better internal communications and “optimal communication platforms,” a financially sound succession plan for its higher ranks, a more professional-looking department with improvements to training and logistics, and better community outreach.
The report has been circulating within the administration for weeks, eliciting questions from administrative and elected officials, most recently from Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who asked the county administrator about it. “We are interested in that,” Sullivan said at Monday’s commission meeting, asking for “a little idea of where we are as far as when that’ll be ready to the board.”
Cameron said the completed plan would be ready “within the next 60 days.” Meanwhile, the administration continues to work with other fire chiefs in the county to coordinate some of the data, such as ensuring that the county’s plans to locate new fire stations match up logically and efficiently with Palm Coast’s. “There is nothing in the way of a valid document that’s available at this time,” Cameron said, describing the rough draft as a starting place to circulate among staffers in the administration and the fire department. Acting Fire Chief Joe King’s name nowhere appears in the plan in the draft. Cameron recently opened a search for a permanent replacement for Don Petito, the long-time fire chief invited to resign last year.
Much of the document is unlikely to change, however, but for what it was lacking, including those items on the location of fire stations, maps detailing coverage areas, annual and capital operating costs, and a replacement plan for Flagler County Fire Flight, the emergency helicopter. And the so-called “swot” analysis (the acronym bureaucracies favor to describe “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats” to an organization) is a central plank of the strategic plan, as are the plan’s goals.
The county’s plan largely follows the template of the Palm Coast Fire Department’s 10-year plan prepared last year, if with less detail–a brief history of the department, its organizational structure, its recent history of call volumes, its budget, mission and “vision,” the location of seven fire stations and five additional stations staffed in part with county firefighter/paramedics, a run-down of fleet and equipment costs, all of which takes up the bulk of the report’s 44 pages, before turning to an analysis of the department’s strengths and weaknesses and its future goals.
Under “strengths,” the plan lists “decent equipment,” efficiency, community involvement, dedicated workers, a good benefits package and experienced ranks among items listed. But the strengths contrasted sharply with those found in Palm Coast’s plan, for what was absent in the county’s plan. Palm Coast’s included diversity, “culture of change,” strong relations with the firefighters’ union, advanced use of technology and a strong equipment replacement program. None of those were found on the county’s lists of strengths.
The Palm Coast Fire Department’s weaknesses were more structural than operational: the city considers it a weakness that it doesn’t control its own emergency communications system, a county infrastructure but an expensive one that the city could not afford, especially as it would duplicate the county’s efforts, which serve all local agencies. The city–like the county–is also reliant on St. Johns for hazmat responses, though those are rare and, when necessary, have never proven to be an impediment to such responses. The city doesn’t like having to rely on the county for its training facility.
On the other hand, both county and city agencies list better cooperation in their “opportunities” category, along with forecasts of growth, more public and professional education and the like. Natural disasters top the lists of threats as does, for the county, the “risk of litigation” and increasing costs.
While the strategic plan’s “goals and objectives” run on for several pages, those can be vague and repetitive. The plan reveals a concerted need for better internal communications, down to an actual communications platform. Very first of seven goals listed so far, that goal underscores internal dysfunction in need of a fix, with quarterly meetings and “open dialogue with staff on effectiveness of communications” among the stated goals.
The other six are the need for a succession plan, a facilities management plan that reflects a better departmental image, better training, a staffing and logistics plan, and two goals with an eye on community outreach and education. If, as the draft notes, the plan is to be a “road map for a justifiable and sustainable future,” that road map appears to be among the items Cameron had in mind when he described the report as unfinished, since it’s not yet in the document.
Until this year, the fire department had a staff of 98 and a budget of $12 million, up from $9.6 million in 2018, when it had a staff of 93, all but a handful uniformed firefighter/paramedics, lieutenants or chiefs. In September, the department received a three-year, $3.26 million federal grant through the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The grant (called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER) enables the hiring of 15 firefighter/paramedics at a salary of $44,850 each, plus $27,507 in benefits. The money is strictly to be spent on salaries and benefits, with no allowances for any peripheral spending, including travel or equipment. There was no local match necessary. But the grant expires after three years, which means that absent another grant, the county’s budget would have to assume the costs of the expansion from then on. That represents a 27 percent budget increase based on this year’s approved budget.
The report details one of the department’s more visible operations–those of Fire Flight, the emergency helicopter that since 2013 has flown 2,151 times, an average of 269 times a year, with a fraction of those flights (236 in eight years) the result of medical airlifts from the site of vehicle crashes or critical accidents.
Fire Flight Operations, 2013-2020
|Law enforcement assists|
|Search and rescue|
The helicopter, acquired for $1.5 million in 2001, was delivered in early 2002 in the aftermath of the devastating 1998 fires to give county emergency personnel a more effective fire-preventive tool. Since 2013 it has flown 900 fire reconnaissance missions since 2013 and was used 174 times in firefighting. The helicopter is equipped with a 210-gallon water bucket. The helicopter is also used on average 38 times a year either to assist law enforcement in searches or chases or in search-and-rescue missions.
It was used most in a single year in 2020, flying 324 times, that number swelled unusually by so-called “community service flights,” which have more to do with PR than emergency services–demonstrations for community groups, at county parks or at certain events, though those have been few in the past year. The helicopter in previous years was also used to fly business executives prospecting in the county: the county’s former economic development division thought it an appealing perk to fly them around to get a bird’s eye view of the county, at taxpayers’ expense. The helicopter was used 23 times a year on average for that purpose through 2019, and for some reason was used 66 times for that purpose last year.
Fire Flight’s budget is $612,000 this year, $80,000 of it going to maintenance, $50,000 to fuel and $293,000 to salaries and benefits.