When Sun n’ Lake residents dial 911 in October, a different fire department will answer, the board of supervisors decided Friday.
By a 5-0 vote, the supervisors decided to stop paying their two week-day Sun n’ Lake Fire Department first responders and ask for protection from the West Sebring Volunteer Fire Department.
“There so many deficiencies in the existing department,” said board Chairman Dave Halbig. “We ignored it and it was just running on its own. It was a lost soul, so to speak. We let the department deteriorate too far to make a comeback. At some point, we might (go back to a full-time department), but for now, we need to go with something else.”
The board is piecemealing its emergency services decisions, Halbig said. In future meetings, supervisors will decide whether to build a station with Highlands County Sheriff’s Office and EMS, and if its two current firefighters should stay to answer medical calls.
That’s been their basic job anyway, Halbig said. “We’ve had zero fire loss in the last one, one-and-a-half years. Ninety-five percent of our calls were EMS calls, and those happen during the daylight hours.”
The board hired Iona-McGregor Fire Protection & Rescue Service District Chief William Elliott to evaluate both the Sun n’ Lake and West Sebring departments.
“He gave us what in his opinion we ought to do at this point,” Halbig said.
Sun n’ Lake Public Safety Director Ryan Feickert and Lt. Craig Marans argued against the logic of moving from a paid department to a volunteer district. Improvement District General Manager Michael Wright had conducted his own study and recommended closing the full-time department. Supervisors mulled the issue for two years.
“We just needed to get another set of eyes on it,” Halbig said. “To turn this thing around would have cost a whole lot time and money.”
According to Florida law, two firefighters must remain outside a structure fire while two are inside. Therefore, SNL’s two full-timers were unable to fight fires until another department arrived.
“Unless they got someone in there screaming for his life,” Halbig added. To have full-time, a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour department would have meant hiring three shifts with four firefighters each, plus backups for vacations and sick days.
“That’s more than this district can afford,” Halbig said, “$1.4 million annually.”
“The jury is still out on whether to keep (the two current) first-responder guys on duty. It would be redundant, but it would be good for the comfort level of the residents,” he said. Many SNL residents are retired, and many of the businesses are medical establishments with elderly clients.
Halbig has been on the SNL board for this years. “And this was the toughest decision I ever had to make.”
Now, Wright must schedule a meeting with the Highlands County commissioners, who sit as special fire district commissioners as well. If the commissioners agree, the boundaries of WSVFD will be expanded to include SNL, and the tax assessor can begin charging SNL residents.
Assistant Chief Billy Kingston estimated WSVFD will pick up between 75 and100 calls a year it is not currently handling. The department was already coming to every structure and brush fire as part of a mutual aid agreement.
If the changeover occurs as planned on Oct. 1, WSVFD will assume control of SNLFD equipment, some of which will be replaced or upgraded.
“Over the last two years, the performance of the Sun N’ Lake Fire Department has come under review,” said Elliott’s report. “Calls for service occurring outside of the daytime operating schedule are answered with a poor level of response from the off-duty employees and small group of volunteers…
“Based on the current schedule of (8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), the responders would not be on duty to respond to the first- and third-highest periods of injury activity (6 a.m. and 5 p.m.) occurring in the home due to fire, based on the statewide experience,” Elliott wrote “Analysis … shows that 35 percent of all injuries from fires occurred from midnight to approximately 8:30 to 9 a.m. An additional 25 percent of all injuries from fire occurred from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.”
Elliott identified problems: employee commitment and availability, lack of goals and strategy, poorly developed polices and processes, dysfunctional level of service staffing, poor reliability after hours, unsafe or old technology, and lack of performance management.
“An unacceptable number of non-responses at night have occurred as well as other systemic issues,” Elliott said. “Consider entering into an agreement as soon as feasible with West Sebring Volunteer Fire Department and have them utilize the current station at Sun N' Lake and coordinate the building of a new facility to accommodate the sheriff, Highlands County EMS and the FD.”