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Report advises one fire district

A consultant suggests consolidating county and city fire departments could save up to $15-million a year.

Published September 25, 2005

Consolidating Pinellas County's mixed bag of county and city fire departments could save taxpayers an estimated $10-million to $15-million a year, according to a county consultant.

MGT of America last week presented the first draft of a study reviewing the efficiency of fire service in Pinellas to the county's Charter Review Commission.

The topic isn't new to Pinellas. MGT looked at fire consolidation as part of a 1992 study that examined consolidating city and county services in several areas. County commissioners agreed in April to pay MGT, which is based in Tallahassee, up to $147,940 to update the study for the Charter Review Commission. At the time, some city officials complained about the makeup of the review commission, which was appointed by the County Commission.

This time, the company was asked to specifically look at the county's fire services.

"There are ways to do this and we are formally recommending a single fire district," said Steve Humphrey, a partner with MGT.

Pinellas County has 20 fire departments. Running the current system costs a total of $177-million annually.

"The system that is out there today is effective, but not necessarily efficient," Humphrey told the Charter Review Commission, which is considering possible changes to county government.

The report recommended a single fire district for the county, saying consolidation would reduce administrative and operational overhead. The consultants also said consolidation would eliminate some equipment, land and buildings.

Humphrey told members of the Charter Review Commission that the report was looking at cost and not quality of service. Members asked Humphrey how consolidation would affect insurance and millage rates. The final draft will be presented in a few weeks.

The consultant's recommendations got a mixed response.

"My philosophy of all of these issues is our taxpayers really are being stretched to the max," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala who serves on the charter review board.

Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Chief James Angle, who is president of the Pinellas County Fire Chief Association, said similar efforts in the past found no compelling reason to recommend consolidation. He won't voice specific concerns until the final report comes out.

"The important question is where are those savings coming from?" Angle said. "We haven't seen that so we couldn't make a judgment if it was more effective or not."

Last December, the idea of consolidating all local fire departments into one countywide agency got city officials buzzing. The possible change surfaced in drafts of legislative bills that County Attorney Susan Churuti sent to state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg.

Farkas said at the time that he was not proposing changes in fire service during the 2005 legislative session. What he said he wants is to get the conversation started.

The current system, where 911 dispatch for the 20 departments is handled by one center, is very effective, the report said. Humphrey said 17.6 percent of 911 calls are fire-related and 82.4 percent are medical-related. On average, 31/2 emergency vehicles respond to each fire- or medical-related incident.

Another recommendation is to have a priority or tiered response system so dispatchers will determine the appropriate response to a call.

The report said 35 percent or less of all medical calls require a response with Advanced Life Support capability. With the current system, all calls are treated with an ALS response, meaning a fire department paramedic goes to almost every medical call. On average, fire departments in Pinellas County respond to 345 medical calls each day.

Having a priority system could reduce the number of response runs by 50 percent, Humphrey said.

Members of the Charter Review Commission made no decisions last week based on the report. They said they wanted to see the final draft, which would show a breakdown of where the savings would apply.

[Last modified September 25, 2005, 02:15:40]

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