Will search for volunteers be enough?

Fire service tax increase looms if volunteer ranks don't swell to address public safety needs

Photo by Kenny Alexander

Now the push is on.

After Escambia County Commissioners at the May 7 meeting approved $375,000 in funding for a 12-man crew of career firefighters to staff the Ferry Pass station, the county hopes to press more volunteers into service to help cover the public safety needs at other county fire stations.

Because the other option is an increase in the fire service fee.

“I believe the changes to the volunteer recruiting process are going to have a dramatic impact,” said Commission chairman Steven Barry. “If the changes county makes have no impact on volunteerism, then I would consider an (fire service fee) change. I feel like we’re considering changing two variables to solve one problem and that makes it difficult to see how much of an effect we have.”

Barry’s rural District 5 has a stronger volunteer corps than other portions of the county. Public Safety Director Mike Weaver acknowledges the main issue with staffing is in the suburban areas south of Nine Mile Road and in the west and southwest parts of the county.

“These areas south of Nine Mile have a tremendous call load,” Weaver said. “West Pensacola is the area where we have the most fires and the highest number of people trapped in fires. It’s our priority between call load and commercial structures.”

Ferry Pass is not the only station in the county where the current level of volunteer staffing leaves gaps in the public safety coverage the station provides. But it came into the spotlight following a Good Friday incident in which two house fires hours apart, tapped out that station’s resources.

The Ferry Pass station — down the street from West Florida Hospital, Ferry Pass Elementary School and Ellyson Industrial Park  — was the busiest of Escambia’s volunteer fire stations in 2014, handling 2,098 incidents, according to county data.

Of those calls, 662 — 32 percent — got no response from the fire station. Another 922 — or 44 percent — saw understaffed responses by the crews that did arrive.

A manpower survey prepared by Escambia County Fire Rescue shows that there are significant staffing shortages at Ferry Pass, Bellview, Myrtle Grove, West Pensacola and Innerarity Point stations. Read more here.

County Administrator Jack Brown and the public safety staff have streamlined some of the volunteer recruiting, training and hiring process to help expedite the process. Read about those here.
And while Barry maintained hope that those changes would swell the county’s volunteer ranks overall — and eliminate the need for a potentially unpopular fire service tax increase, other commissioners were less optimistic.

Commissioner Grover Robinson’s district includes Ferry Pass. He is concerned that more volunteers will only help “not grow the hole” parts of the county are already in with fire service.

“We absolutely know we need one station,” Robinson said. “We’re going to need volunteerism to make sure we’re not slipping further and further behind. I do have concern that where we will find ourselves next year, where you have to do a budget right before your primary vote.”

More staffing at other stations likely will require an increase in the fire services fee. And it was there that consensus among commissioners was harder to come by.

fire_service_flat_fees fire_service_fee_13_26 fire_service_fee_7_14 fire_service_fee5_10Commissioners saw several options for increasing the fire municipal services benefit unit from Brown and staff.

The fee is now $85 a year per homeowner.

The smallest increase offered was a $5 increase per home, $0.02 per square foot on commercial property and $1 per parcel on vacant land in the first year. That would add $840,000 in funding. The second year, that would increase to $10 per home and $2 for vacant parcel; the commercial rate would be remain a penny per square foot.

Commissioners saw options for $7 per home per year and $13.30 per home per year as well.

The largest increase offered was a flat $50 per home per year, 6 cents per square foot for commercial property and $12 per parcel for vacant land annually.

That would generate enough funding to staff all stations south of Nine Mile Road with career firefighters, but commissioners expressed little appetite for that large an increase at the May 7 meeting.

Wilson Robertson was not alone in expressing concerns about the financial pressure an increase could mean for some residents and commercial property holders.

“I can’t imagine going from $85 to $90 is going to put any household into real problems,” Robertson said. “(But that first draft proposal is so minimal, I don’t know that small amount money if going to get us where we’re going to go.”

Commissioner Doug Underhill noted, “there are people in District 2 for whom ($50 more a year) is a lot of money. On a cumulative basis, this makes moderate income housing closer to town hard to come by.”

The county has a push on now through its website to recruit more volunteers. See the link here.

In the meantime, it seems wait and see seems to be the mantra for other parts of the county, where fire staffing issues remain.

Commissioner Lumon May expressed concern that West Pensacola, which Public Safety Director Weaver has said is the station he would like to see upgraded next in staffing levels, remains in a hope-for-more-volunteers pattern at least for the time being.

As uncomfortable as the politics of a tax increase may be, Underhill said it may be just a matter of time.

“It’s there but by the grace of god that hasn’t happened in district 2 or anyplace else,” Underhill said. “I have a hard time believing that the volunteer train will turn around in the next six months, (enough) to make us avoid the unavoidable reality that we aren’t paying enough for fire service in a community of this complexity.”