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    Sand Key moving to faster 911 times

    The addition of a firetruck has reduced response times by minutes. And residents are thankful a fire station is being planned.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- He fell on his bed in pain from a heart attack. She dialed 911. Three minutes passed before help arrived -- and saved his life.

    For that, Sand Key residents Bob and Caryl Renz are grateful.

    "If they were another minute longer, I would have died," said Bob Renz, 63, referring to the emergency personnel who arrived and took him to Morton Plant Hospital in September 1999.

    Doctors there performed emergency triple-bypass heart surgery on Renz.

    "If they wouldn't have gotten me there, I wouldn't have had a chance," he said.

    For years, Sand Key residents weren't sure whether emergency vehicles would arrive in time to save a life or extinguish a fire.

    Eventually, the city responded by placing paramedics on the island in August 1999. Later, a firetruck with fire and paramedic capabilities was stationed there to answer emergency calls.

    The average travel time dipped from more than six minutes in September 1999 to four minutes, 27 seconds in September 2000.

    The city is poised to approve allowing engineering and architectural firms to design an estimated $1.7-million permanent fire station.

    It was a long time coming.

    The city first discussed placing a fire station on Sand Key in the late 1970s, said Rowland Herald, chief of the Clearwater Fire Department. He recognized the need to protect valuable property. But with few fire calls on Sand Key, it was hard to justify the expense. Herald didn't relent.

    "I continued to believe it was the right thing to do for the community," he said. "We were consistently unable to provide the timely response that we thought was appropriate."

    Before August 1999, dialing 911 on Sand Key provided uncertain results. Sand Key, a sliver of land just south of Clearwater Beach, has 24 high-rise buildings; 11 do not have sprinkler systems. Tourist traffic and condominium gates and elevators slowed response times.

    Emergency vehicles must gain access to gates, get inside the building, wait for an elevator and then slowly make the ascent skyward.

    The height of the buildings and the difficulty reaching upper floors is part of the problem, said Al Lijewski, a co-founder of the Sand Key Civic Association.

    "Looking at the horizontal response time just isn't the answer, and the condominium associations have to take a certain amount of responsibility for that," he said.

    Some associations have talked with the city about providing direct access to their property, he said.

    The new station would be at the old Sand Key Bridge tollbooth on Gulf Boulevard. The Clearwater City Commission is set to discuss paying Tampa Bay Engineering Inc. $98,300 to provide architectural designs at a work session and is expected to put the matter on the commission's agenda this week for approval.

    The firetruck now on Sand Key has eased the workload of the North Beach fire station and fire stations in surrounding areas.

    The North Beach fire station was built in the mid 1960s, but buildings quickly cropped up around it. Development on the beach moved what was once a centrally located fire station farther and farther from the communities it served. The problem surfaced in the 1970s when the city had its first discussions about putting a station on Sand Key, Herald said.

    "The community grew up, and we haven't been able to put a fire station in place to account for that growth," he said.

    Clearwater appears to be catching up.

    Residents are resting a bit easier since the Clearwater Fire Department stationed a crew within reach of their high-rise condos. They are elated that the island soon may see its first fire station.

    "We are grateful for that," said Dick Ruben, a director of the Sand Key Civic Association. "We have been waiting long and hard."

    The assurance of knowing someone is nearby is gratifying, he said.

    Most Sand Key residents have raised their children and either are retired or semiretired.

    "We're more susceptible to more things happening than the younger generation, shall we say," Ruben said.

    Last August, Ruben, who helps patrol Sand Key Beach, was trying to return his all-terrain vehicle to the Cabana Club. The last thing he remembers is sitting on the ATV waiting. He later learned he passed out from heat exhaustion and emergency personnel quickly responded.

    "I owe my life to them," he said. "If they hadn't gotten there so quickly as they did, well, there's no telling."

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