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Change High Point fire system

A Times Editorial
Published September 8, 2005


It's difficult to imagine a scene more absurdly frightening, but it happened early Sunday morning in the High Point community:

Sheriff's deputies trying to enter a burning mobile home to search for occupants. Paramedics standing by in case they are needed and inquiring of dispatchers why no fire engine has arrived.

Meanwhile, professionally trained and well-equipped firefighters sat in a parked fire engine within blocks of the burning home for at least six minutes, waiting for a formal invitation to battle the blaze.

Why? Because the volunteer fire department in the 1,500-mobile home community has first dibs on any fire inside those gates, even if the Hernando County Fire Rescue engine gets there first, as it did Sunday.

The written agreement that sanctions such a dangerous travesty should be set afire and the ashes placed in a memorial urn so that no one will forget how senseless and petty it was.

Then the board of directors of the High Point property owners association should do what is best for residents' safety: disband the volunteer force and ask the county fire rescue service to respond to all emergency calls.

According to eyewitnesses, the 54-year-old woman who died in the early morning fire probably could not have been saved even if Hernando County's firefighters had not waited for the High Point volunteers to request help. But in a different circumstance, those few minutes could have meant the difference between life and death, or the destruction of neighboring homes.

The High Point volunteer force was understaffed, according to its chief and assistant chief, because of the Labor Day weekend and because some of its members have not returned from their annual treks up North. And according to a lieutenant with Hernando County Fire Rescue, the High Point chief said, "I only have one guy who can go in, but he's too tired and the rest of us are too old." The assistant chief also said only one of High Point's volunteers is a state-certified firefighter.

That is simply unacceptable. Volunteers who are not properly trained and physically able pose a threat to themselves and to the safety and property of every resident in High Point.

A countywide fire service study completed in 2002 recommended that the county take over coverage of High Point, as well as Hernando Beach. Commissioners at that time hesitated because they feared the political fallout. They should have had more courage and foresight.

If the county assumed that responsibility now, it would cost residents about $127 per year, or $80 more than they pay now. That is a small price to pay for a service as crucial as fire protection.

But if that increase would create a burden on some residents, the County Commission could authorize a smaller fee that would not be raised until the property was sold. Or, the property owners association could sell the firefighting equipment and use the proceeds to offset the added expense for the lowest-income residents.

However, public safety, not cost, should be the single-minded concern for residents and for the County Commission, which is ultimately responsible for their safety.

The volunteer firefighters are to be commended for a longstanding willingness to protect their neighbors. Their sacrifices of time and energy demonstrate the pride they have in their community.

But it is apparent they are no longer up to the round-the-clock job. It is time to dissolve the department and place the task of fire protection in the hands of paid professionals.

[Last modified September 8, 2005, 01:49:23]


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