SNL-West Sebring VFD merger closer
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodaySEBRING - A proposed merger with the West Sebring Volunteer Fire Department is drawing closer, Sun 'n Lake General Manager Michael Wright said Thursday.
Published: February 22, 2013
Published: February 22, 2013
The Sun 'n Lake Board of Supervisors took an initial step earlier this month by voting unanimously to negotiate with the West Sebring volunteers to take over the Sun 'n Lake department.
Since then, Wright has spoken with Highlands County Emergency Operations Director and EMS Director Harvey Craven. WSVFD Assistant Chief Billy Kingston said his board has voted to accept Sun 'n Lake.
Finally, Wright said, Highlands County commissioners would have to agree. Although the matter is not yet on an agenda, Wright expects that to happen within the next few months.
If the merger happens, Wright said, "I think the service will actually improve."
Problems with the current SNLFD are two-fold: 14 paid firefighters-EMTs are on duty eight hours a day, seven days a week. While they're off duty, they or West Sebring answer calls.
"For the other 16 hours a day, there are no more than three volunteers available," Wright wrote in a Feb. 4 memo to the board.
During the first nine months of 2012, Wright wrote, 911 and district records indicate SNLFD firefighters-EMTs responded to 39 calls inside the district between 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 a.m., and did not respond to 28 calls.
"We were asked dozens of times, and we did not respond to mutual aid calls. Now, granted, they may have been called off. I don't know what happened there," Wright said. "We just felt like we have to have something different than we do now."
The other problem, Wright said, is the age of the fire department's equipment and the station. The station resembles a Quonset hut.
"It's not really a fire station, it's an open-air garage," Kingston said. "It's not secure. It's not out of the weather."
He hopes to build a new substation with Highlands County EMS paramedics and the sheriff's office. Florida Hospital has already offered space, and Wright thinks it's an appropriate location because it's close to U.S. 27, where most calls are answered.
WSVFD also is the appropriate agency for a merger, he said. "They already serve 42,000 people in this county, everything between Avon Park and Sebring. And they border us on two sides."
Kingston said SNL and West Sebring are similar in geography and demographics: both bordered by urban forests, both densely populated with middle-class homes.
Wright explored another option: taking the department full time, which would cost about $1 million a year, compared to the $180,000 already raised by the 5 percent subsidy now assessed on SNL residents. However, that would mean raising the assessment almost sixfold.
Kingston said if WSVFD does take over, SNL residential assessments could go down from $32 to $25.
SNLPD Lt. Craig Marans told Highlands Today for a Feb. 8 story that the district would lose the experience of its own firefighters, but Kingston countered that the new firefighters would quickly learn the territory. "Besides, we already respond there now when they're not able."
True, Kingston conceded, WSVFD doesn't respond to every medical call. "They go to every medical call in that district, when they're on duty. We only go to certain, life-threatening medicals. Like where someone is unresponsive."
But many of those medical calls come from doctor's offices, and there's already a doctor and a nurse on site.
With two nursing homes, an elementary and a middle school, a hospital and many doctor's offices in the area, as well as large areas of brush, and isolated houses, Marans said, response time is his main concern.
Also true, Kingston conceded. SNL's average response time is about two minutes; WSVFD is seven minutes away from its Hammock Road location, but the Sebring Parkway location is only a couple of minutes away.
The bottom line, though, is that SNL residents would get more consistent service than they do now, Kingston said. "The level of service they are going to get is not smaller. And we want people to know: we're not out there trying to expand our territory. They came to us, and if we're needed there, we'll go."