County Wants To Kill Current Volunteer Fire Departments, Create New Unified Fire Dept

January 18, 2008

Independent volunteer fire departments will be a thing of the past by October 1 if the Escambia County Commission gets its way.

“As far as I am concerned on October 1, we’ve got a whole new fire department in Escambia County,” said Commissioner Mike Whitehead.

“There will be so many stations, but they won’t be independent districts anymore. It will be an Escambia County fire system,” said Commissioner Gene Valentino. “We will still very much value and absolutely need the support of the volunteers, but it will be one system that will be a unified Escambia County fire system.”

Commissioners began their fire department discussion centered around stipend overpayments and a recent audit. That audit found volunteer firefighters were overpaid $39,500 during the six months from October 2006 to February 2007, with one third of that money going to firefighters in North Escambia. An audit conducted by the volunteer fire departments found $24,575 in overpayments county-wide.

Assistant County Administrator Willie Taylor told commissioners they basically had three choices: first, waive repayment; second, accept a lump sum repayment; or third, negotiate a repayment plan.

Regi Burkett, vice president of the Escambia County Volunteer Firefighters Association, told the commission that the $24,575 was the amount that the volunteers had agreed upon. Burkett is also chief of the Century Volunteer Fire Department.

“We stand on the twenty four five,” Burkett said. “Whatever you decide on the repayment, that’s what we’ll do, if it will end this thing here and today.”

Valentino said he believed the volunteer overpayments were neither deceitful or intentional and “pinching a department or two of 24 grand is not on my agenda today”.

“God knows we need to support them as much as we can,” Valentino said. “I’m more concerned about unified fire service. I’m more concerned about an organization chart where one guy is at the top, and if he’s not doing his job, then he’s fired. ” The organization chart should end with everyone reporting ultimately to the assistant county administrator, he said.

“An orderly response for life safety issues means more to me than the $24,000. I would be very much in favor of just waiving this issue altogether but tie it to a very important request,” he continued, asking the volunteer and paid firefighters to work “in a unified manner to help work with staff with consolidating the fire system.”

“We would very much appreciate you waiving it,” Burkett responded to the commission. “But we stand ready to make it a unified sytem either way it goes. We want to do that, but we want our concerns heard and acted on in the process.”

“We are the ones in the community out there that have been supplying this so many years, and we want to see it continue at a pace where the residents and taxpayers are going to benefit for it and not suffer from it,” Burkett also said.

Burkett told the commission that the volunteers were willing to work with the commission on unifying the fire system, but he did not see why the stipend overpayment repayment and the unified system needed to be handled together.

County Attorney Janet Lander told the commission that the county’s agreement with the volunteer fire departments in the county ends on September 30.

“I’m not going to vote to renew a contract,” Whitehead said. “We’ve talked about it for two years. It’s time to move; it’s time to make it happen.

The commission then voted 5-0 in favor of waiving the volunteer overpayments and working toward a unified county fire department as of October 1 of this year. The vote is not binding; a similar resolution must pass at a regular commission meeting.

The commission also tackled the issue of volunteer certification. In order to become a certified “Firefighter I”, a volunteer must complete 160 hours of training and take a state certification test within one year. Provisions exist to allow exemption letters for firefighters that had an equivalent amount of experience prior to the end of 2005, without requiring those firefighters to take a state test.

“There will be no new letters,” Burkett said. “Attrition will take care of the ones that are in existence.” No new firefighters are allowed under state law to obtain an exemption letter.

The Firefighter I certification is required for a volunteer to enter an “exclusion zone”. In essence, a firefighter without proper certification is not allowed to enter a burning building, the area immediately around a burning building, or certain other scenes like the danger area around a chemical spill.

The commission voted 5-0 to grandfather volunteer firefighters with an exemption letter to be paid at the Firefighter I stipend rate until September 30. Beginning October 1, firefighters with an exemption letter will be dropped to the stipend level of a “Firefighter Trainee”.

Lander said that if the resolution passes, as of October 1, “Escambia County shall not issue a stipend to any volunteer who has not at least met the state certification requirements of Firefighter I, regardless of whether the volunteer has an exemption letter.”

The volunteer firefighter training motion passed at Thursday’s Escambia County Committee of the Whole is not binding until approved a regular commission meeting. The commission has a joint meeting scheduled for Tuesday with the Pensacola City Council and a regular meeting scheduled for next Thursday at 5:30. The firefighters issues are expected to be discussed at the Thursday meeting; they do not appear on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

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