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.
Flagler County Fire Rescue Draft Strategic Plan
Sarah Vandergrift says
Too many Fire Department branches and too much being spent on equipment..The leadership should be
better and the Personnel..some of them..not as talented or trained or kind as many of the Fire Department personnel
are..Need to weed out the lazy..non hard working members..The head of the Department needs to be looked at
more closely..A lot of free time is spent in each location of the Fire Department buildings..and a lot of new
equipment being purchased and not used..I noticed some Department “heads’..not doing their jobs and slacking
Flagler Firefighter says
From what I hear, this report was put together largely by Heidi Petito. If that is, in fact the truth- this strategic plan is questionable.
Morale issues can be attributed to a number factors, among those a flux in leadership absent of a clear direction on a permanent replacement. That issue falls on County Administration, and not on the acting Fire Chief.
We need LEADERS not managers. People need to be lead not managed. Firefight is a godsend. Stop the city v. County cat fight and focus on training and cooperation.
Qui Bono says
I’m going to ask the question why the County needs a fire department, not because I think it shouldn’t but because I think there needs to be a very clear answer as to why. Many areas operate with only volunteers running the fire department and since Palm Coast has a very good fire department, would it make more sense for the County to reimburse the City when needed rather than have their own and let volunteers handle the far-flung areas?
The helicopter, what is its purpose? Purchased for fire suppression? Does that need still exist or does the Florida Forest Service have the undeveloped areas properly maintained and have adequate equipment for suppression without a helicopter? Air ambulance service: is this truly necessary as it would appear it’s busiest year is three missions a month? Are there more medivac helicopters in the area now compared to 20 years ago when the helicopter was purchased? The rest of the uses seem unrelated to the fire department.
Why was this study commissioned? Is there a previous one to compare it with? Does the County even have money to spend on this issue without raising taxes on those already paying fees for fire service in Palm Coast?
I mean no disrespect to our dedicated public servants, but I do question what the County is up to.
Why does the County have deputies? Shouldn’t they just be volunteers and let the City handle crime fighting?
Turn it around and your questions come across silly. I understand the premise but be more articulate.
I also presume that you would also ask the question to as why there are no volunteer Sheriff Deputies?
Can you also cite which county in Florida, that has our size of Flagler, that is also a volunteer fire department and has volunteer paramedics to transport patients.
Just like our surrounding counties, our county has a fire department. Volusia County Fire Rescue assists the community where there are gaps, as well as assists in major incidents. Volusia County also has their transport agency known as EVAC. St. John’s County has their fire department that is staffed with multiple apparatus as well as the ability to transport patients. It would make sense that Flagler County has the same formula in order to treat our community with all emergency needs.
Concerned Citizen says
I’m guessing you weren’t here during active fire seasons.
Yes Wild fire is still an active threat. And if you weren’t here during the 80s and for 98 you might not be able to grasp why having dedicated air support in the county is so vital. One of the reasons so many homes were lost in 98 was due to the fact that we had a difficult time getting airborne supression into the county.
As far as the county having a fire department. Flagler County is much bigger than Palm Coast. You have large unincorporated areas outside of the city. How will one Fire Agency handle that large of a district?
At any rate and speaking as a retired Fire Rescue Lt from another agency. And not an arm chair keyboard warrior. I have volunteered in the area with Emergency Services for a long time. And see a lot that could be done to improve the Fire Dept. But it starts at the top with better managers and support from the BOCC.
Qui Bono says
I did not mean for my comments to sound “silly.” The Sheriff does indeed use volunteers to supplement his professional force. These volunteers are referred to as, “Citizens on Patrol” or C.O.P.s. Also, your counterpoint is irrelevant because Palm Coast does not have a police department of its own. It’s true, there is a lot outside of Palm Coast, but it is all undeveloped forested and swamplands that are more appropriate for the Florida Forest Service to control fire on. Besides, one helicopter will be able to extinguish all of the wildlands in Flagler County? My questioning pertains to the actual need for this supplemental service from the County’s helicopter to the Florida Forest Service’s, bulldozers, spotter planes, and many and varied equipment to protect the developed areas.
As to the question of volunteer fire service, I’ll respond by asking instead which Counties do not supplement a professional force of some kind with volunteers?
So far the commenters to my original post have not proven any of my original questions invalid. By all means, please continue the debate in the comments section. I doubt the County will give this much debate to the issue before launching into a solution that does not address the actual problems.
It’s not a debate. You have been given the information and are not retaining the information. COPs respond to minor traffic accidents, etc. You do not see COP perform a traffic stop, for example.
The helicopter is equipped to not only perform wild land firefighting operations, but also assist FCSO as well as any emergency medical transport.
Roy Longo says
With the exception of Palm Coast in 1998 Flagler County was an all volunteer fire department and very little fire command. And we had no helicopter. Approximately 70 homes were destroyed. Countless homes were damaged. Shortly after the fires, the County started a career fire department and purchased the helicopter. Since that time we have had numerous brush fires that have been contained by FireFlight and extinguished by the career firefighters. As to the fires in non populated areas, it can take Forestry a long time to get to a fire when there is little access. Sometimes close to an hour. By then the fire can become huge and put the lives of firefighters at a greater risk than need be. FireFlight can keep the fires contained until someone can get there to extinguish them.
Fire tim says
Why does city need a fire department. They can pay the county for more people and service. This would bring everything under one house and cut cost for upper management too.
Qui Bono says
If you look at the draft report, it looks like a cost estimate of all the new equipment needed to rebuild a fire Department. The problem is, “Firefighters don’t actually fight that many fires these days. It’s time to re-think how we deliver costly emergency services” as cited in the web article here https://www.governing.com/archive/col-fire-departments-rethink-delivery-emergency-medical-services.html
So instead of using the “same formula as other areas” to pay for very expensive equipment to match some hypothetical need, let’s determine the actual needs.
The fact that in 1998 fires destroyed homes in Palm Coast is a little misleading. In 1998, Palm Coast was mostly forested. Today, Palm Coast has a well-run fire department serving a community that is built up. A fire out in the undeveloped areas doesn’t pose the same risk to our residents that burning wooded lots in the city once did. I would appreciate not using the 1998 fires as a scare tactic for Palm Coast citizens.
The Florida Forest Service boasts on their website, “one of the foremost aviation programs in the country.” Is getting air support still the issue it once was decades ago? Large Landowners can get assistance to protect their property, “The Florida Forest Service has created programs and services for hazardous fuel management. These Fire Management Services include fuel reduction, fireline plowing and prescribed burning.”
I will repeat my original premise, “I’m going to ask the question why the County needs a fire department, not because I think it shouldn’t but because I think there needs to be a very clear answer as to why.” A meaningful discussion needs to be had about what resources the County actually needs, not just replace what it has already or expand further based upon a formula. The fact is we pay for fire service in Palm Coast already and outside of Palm Coast there has been no growth. Yet we converted all county volunteer fire stations to career stations and bought a helicopter to put out fires in the middle of nowhere and perform three medevacs a month. I hope before money is spent that serious consideration is given to the matter.
Obviously have have not worked in a field that oversees or manages fire danger. While the Forestry service does indeed have a first class aviation service, during times of extreme drought airpower often goes to the first fire. When Florida’s drought index hits record numbers, which we have not seen in several year so the cycle will begin again, Palm Coast, Flagler and many of our surrounding counties are left to fend for ourselves due to resources going elsewhere. So yes it is still that hard to get manpower – Forestry is on an even tighter budget than our county and city governments. There is not a forestry helicopter and plane in every airport. These are resources that go based on level of need and if our need is not as high as the Panhandle or Miami, then we do not get the resources. In 2007, the Bugaboo scrub fire in Lake City took all the resources and surrounding counties were told to brace for themselves if another big fire broke out because the Calvary wouldn’t arrive right away. That fire burned from April until June. By the way, our last true drought season was 2011 – Palm Coast was not mainly wooded. FireFlight flew several missions that saved houses in Palm Coast. Let me be clear – they weren’t in the middle of nowhere – they were in populated areas of Palm Coast near Belle Terre. What changed? We went into a wet cycle – welcome to Florida – it will change again.
Next in Florida to be certified as a firefighter – including a volunteer – you must complete Firefighter I certification. Most volunteers are employed and have day jobs or shift work. The classes must be completed and other than Putnam County, which offers just Firefighter I to their volunteer stations, all other colleges including Daytona State combine firefighter I and II. Who has time to take off 6 months from their job to get these certifications? Who is paying for this certification? And what return does the county get for spending to outfit a volunteer station? The person who had the class paid for doesn’t have to give two weeks notice if they don’t want to volunteer anymore – they don’t even have to show up for a fire call. And lets say someone does want to take the classes – First Coast Tech decided to stop their evening classes. Also due to the changes in people’s employment, there is not an abundant supply of volunteers to go around. Flagler County is a bedroom community – many people community to Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Gainesville and Daytona for work, so they can’t respond to a call if they wanted to. This is not an environment conducive to having volunteers. So should county residents not be protected as well as city? I don’t think so. Also the county maintains the emergency transport, meaning all medical services go through them, so all those ambulances you see are county.