Sugarloaf fire goes career force

By Steve Estes

Monroe County officials decided last week that the era of the all-volunteer fire station in the Keys is going to have to come permanently to a close.

The Board of County Commissioners approved a $475,000 expenditure in the coming fiscal year to place paid firefighting staff at the Sugarloaf Fire Station.

Other than a few months last year, Station 10 has been an all-volunteer force throughout its history.

County Fire Chief Jim Callahan said he recognized potential issues at the station last year when he tried, only partially successfully, to install a paid force at the facility.

He said that the volunteer pool has begun to shrink throughout the island chain and that Sugarloaf could no longer meet reasonable response times.

Then came the annual insurance hazard rating inspection and officials expected this year’s rating to come in at a 10, with one the best. As a result of that possible rating, homeowner’s insurance premiums for those properties covered by Sugarloaf could have “doubled, tripled, maybe even get canceled,” said Callahan.

Due to the station’s label as all-volunteer, the rating didn’t take into account the proximity of Big Coppitt at mile marker 11 and Cudjoe at mile marker 21, said fire board member Kevin Gerard.

He also said that the new rating criteria no longer allowed for volunteers to show up at the scene in personal vehicles. “Everyone must be on the truck when it leaves the station, and that slows the response time.”

“We have seen a steady decline in the available volunteer force since I came here in 1985,” said County Mayor George Neugent. “Without moving to a paid force,we were looking at substantial insurance rate increases for some of the homeowners out there, but beyond that, our job as commissioners is to promote public safety first and foremost. This was a move we had to make. We have the money in reserves to cover this necessary cost. We’ll move some money around and make a spot for public safety issues.”

With the approved money, the county will place two full-time positions at the Sugarloaf station. But it takes seven actual positions to man two slots around the clock at the fire house. There may be more coming in the following years.

Callahan assigned paid personnel to the Sugarloaf station starting last Monday. They will be expected to roll the truck on calls and the volunteers can either join them at the scene or at the station prior to rolling.

Sugarloaf still won’t have a dedicated ambulance at the station. Instead, says Gerard, one of the trucks will have a compartment converted to Advanced Life Support equipment. Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics will respond using that truck to rescue calls so they can provide on-scene care until the ambulance arrives from another station.

County staff and the Sugarloaf Volunteer Fire Department board will spend the next few weeks working out long-term financial obligations for each party as a result of the county’s decision.

The fire station is owned by the volunteers. That has made it problematic in the past to toss taxpayer money at the physical plant because of the rules against spending public money on private property.

Last year, however, the county declared the building a public use because of its functions as a fire station, a voting precinct and a community meeting hall and as such were able to put $150,000 toward concrete spalling repairs on the aging structure.

Several cost-sharing issues remain, however.

In order to house paid staff, part of the existing building will have to be converted to berthing spaces.

According to Callahan, there is an area already with immediate outside access via a stairway to the parking bays that can be converted for berthing.

The question remains who will pay for that conversion.

The volunteers have been adamant that the county pay for the berthing renovations since it is the county that insists on a paid force.

Gerard says that the volunteer’s ability to raise money in the community will be curtailed with the switch to a paid/volunteer force, and the group plans to ask the county to take over responsibility for building maintenance using Public Works staff, and possibly pay for the station’s insurance.

“We have some bright people in place that can figure out how to make those  things work,” said Neugent.

Had the volunteers continued to balk at the placement of paid personnel in the facility, Callahan said that in order to ensure a higher insurance rating for the area and provide the coverage he considers necessary for public safety, the county may have been forced to close the facility and build another fire station on nearby property.

That made sense for no one, said Neugent.

Callahan put as his goal when he took the job to provide a full functional fire station no less than every 10 miles throughout the Keys. The only place that doesn’t exist today with the transfer of Sugarloaf to a paid force is the middle of the 7-Mile Bridge.

“And that doesn’t count,” said Callahan.

But county fire rescue upgrades may not yet be over. Callahan is asking the BOCC to set aside $4.5 million in its capital projects budget for a possibler fire station on Summerland Key. Most of Summerland gets its coverage from Big Pine and Cudjoe, both of which are just under five miles from the center of Summerland Key.

“We need to get better response times in Summerland Key Cove,” said Callahan in pushing the concept to the BOCC during this budget cycle.

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