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A committee takes up a consultant's proposal for streamlining emergency services.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008
BROOKSVILLE - County and emergency service officials may differ on what the future of the county's fire services should look like, but they agreed Tuesday to set up a committee to look for ways that Hernando's six fire departments can work better together.
The committee's challenge could be daunting: Evaluating more than two dozen major points contained in the proposed master plan for streamlining the county's emergency services.
Commissioners largely steered clear of whether to unite all the fire departments, the hottest issue in the recently released plan. The consultants noted that a consolidation is feasible but stopped short of recommending it.
In fact, the consultants said that in the more than 700 communities where they have examined similar issues, most opted to remain independent.
Much of the debate on consolidation is on hold until November, when Spring Hill residents will vote on whether Spring Hill Fire Rescue should be an independent district.
The consultant, Emergency Services Consulting Inc., spent more than an hour Tuesday walking the board through the 574-page report. They told of how they examined the fire departments, as they are today and how those services could change to enhance services and response times.
Existing fire service is acceptable, they said, but gaps do exist. Changes are needed to meet the optimum response times, said Phil Kouwe, senior vice president for the consulting firm.
"You need to have a benchmark against which you measure your performance," Kouwe said. "That's going to be what presents you with the thresholds and triggers" to make improvements into the future.
The master plan details where new fire stations could be put, where a redundant station could be closed and where some stations could be moved. The master planning process is supposed to recommend locations for the best emergency service coverage, and even a move of just a mile and a half could mean more than two minutes of response time, he said.
Kouwe also stressed that the plan does not call for immediate changes, but if an opportunity arises, the plan could guide the county. He added that following the guidelines would mean better response times in urban, suburban and rural areas.
The study also details many ways the fire departments can cooperate more, from creating standard guidelines to sharing training opportunities.
Hernando County could create a unified department or could simply drop borders so that the nearest emergency unit responds to an emergency, senior consultant Martin Goughnour said. Kouwe added that the critical factor is that the closest unit responds to a 911 call "regardless of jurisdiction."
Fire officials, however, assured commissioners that this happens now. They also said they were ready to talk about the other ideas contained in the consultant's report.
Spring Hill fire Chief J.J. Morrison said he wanted to dispel any sense that his department has "less than a positive attitude" about finding ways to cooperate.
He supported the idea of a steering committee that would include fire chiefs and labor representatives as well as taxpayers. He did not suggest enlisting any elected officials, although Commissioner Jeff Stabins said that could be a possibility.
Board Chairman Chris Kingsley said he didn't want to see any political figures represented. Commissioner Dave Russell said it would make sense for the staff to talk awhile longer about the makeup of the committee and bring back ideas later this month.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1434.
[Last modified January 15, 2008, 22:23:00]