When Flagler Beach even talks about buying a single fire truck, it starts an agonizing process that can last for months, require numerous discussions at city commission meetings and town hall meetings, the display of specs, pictures, and comparative charts, and enough political maneuvering to get around petition and electoral drives. In 2016, Rick Belhumeur, who was leading the drive against buying a firetruck for a year, leveraged the opposition eventually to get himself elected to the city commission–without opposition (he was defeated last March).
It took five months in 2014 between the time the Flagler Beach fire chief pitched his proposal for a $600,000 fire truck and the city commission’s vote approving it, and several months in 2020 for another firetruck purchase, even though both times much of the money was drawn from a fund set aside for the purpose, and that accrues dollars year after year. (It’s drawn from Flagler Beach’s share of local sales tax dollars.) Palm Coast has a similar trust fund for its fire truck purchases, and that city usually puts on an elaborate presentation for its elected officials when it prepares to buy a new fire engine.
It’s a different story in Flagler County. On Monday, the County Commission approved spending $1.24 million to buy two firetrucks in one fell swoop, thus replacing half of Flagler County Fire Rescue’s four front-line fire trucks when the two new engines are delivered in about 14 months. The proposal was approved unanimously after little discussion.
The request, put forth by Fire Chief Mike Tucker, was on the commission’s consent agenda–the portion of the agenda that stacks up what are usually routine items to get approved in one go, without discussion, unless a commissioner pulls a specific item out for discussion–as Commissioner Andy Dance did in this case, if for only a brief overview of the item. The background material on the item added up to three spare pages.
Tucker had discussed the department’s needs at a goal-setting workshop with the commission earlier this month, when he said that various purchases had been delayed over the years, including fire engines and ambulances, putting the county in the position it faces now–to catch up. So Monday’s approval by the commission had not been part of the year’s budget discussions (next year’s budget discussions are only beginning), nor been in the budget.
“I’m not thrilled with pulling six and a half percent of our reserved for a couple of fire trucks. I know it’s needed,” Dance said, not objecting to the purchases. The money was taken out of general fund reserves. The 6.5 percent figure Dance was referring to was based on the budget as of Monday, when the reserves totaled $18.4 million.
That’s a point-in-time total. General fund reserves stood at $5.3 million when the budget was adopted (and when reserves reflect totals at book-closing). Those are reserves for contingencies, a county spokesperson said, with overall reserves “significantly higher.” (Reserves fluctuate during the year depending on tax revenue and projects yet to be financed.) Nevertheless, fire rescue is limited to using money only from the general fund and its reserves. It cannot, for example, dip into the airport fund reserve.
The current fleet has four engines, all of them with more than 100,000 miles, and two of them with more than 130,000 miles–those in St. Johns Park at the west end of the county, and in the Hammock, at the northeast of the county. Repairs to the engines have been costly, and down time has meant they’ve been out of service. The county has two reserve engines.
“One of the challenges with fire engines, with ambulances as well, it’s not just the miles going to and from,” Tucker told commissioners, “but it’s the speed which what they have to do that, the acceleration and deceleration. And one of the worst things on on those large engines is to idle. So when those things sit on scenes for extended periods of time, those engines’ RPMs get up for a long period of time, so there’s a lot of wear and tear placed on them in that short amount of time relative to the to the mileage.” The department has a formula that more accurately corelates the wear and tear on engines, including hours of operation. The engine at Station 71 in St. Johns Park, for example, has 159,000 miles and 10,143 hours of operations, equating to the equivalent of 355,000 equivalent miles by that formula, Tucker said.
The county is buying the two engines from Pierce, the major fire engine manufacturer, but from its manufacturing plant in Bradenton, as opposed to different models built in Wisconsin. “We can get it fast as compared with anything else,” Tucker said, noting that fire agencies in Volusia and Lake counties use the same model. “We know that it’s dependable, and we know agencies using it now are very happy with it.” The Wisconsin option would have taken 22 months, he said. (The fire engine model or specs were not included in the commissioners’ back-up material, but Tucker referred a question to that effect to Pierce’s Saber chassis webpage, with numerous examples of the engine soon to be on order for Flagler.) The model, he said includes a 500-gallon water tank and is used for structure and vehicle fires, among other operations.
It isn’t yet clear where the new engines will be stationed, Tucker said. Last year the fire department expanded by 15 firefighters thanks to a three-year grant, enabling the department to add a firefighter on each engine–but not to expand the number of stations. The largest capital plan in the works at the moment, aside from the fire engine purchase, is the shifting of the Espanola fire station to a new station yet to be built at the intersection of State Road v100 and County Road 305. But there are no plans for a net addition of a fire station for now, Tucker said. Ambulance orders may be ahead, but if that’s the case, an ambulance would take 24 months for delivery, Tucker said.
The county has a capital fund similar to that of Flagler Beach and Palm Coast for its apparatus needs, Tucker said, but its not being used in this case because of the backlog of needs.
“I know it’s needed and I’ve heard the conditions of some of the higher mileage vehicles,” Dance said. “I acknowledge the timeline that we need to move these things up, but it doesn’t make me any more comfortable doing it.”
“I’m not that comfortable coming to you with a request either,” Tucker said.