Sugarloaf fire, county still working on lease
Volunteers need space for booked events

By Steve Estes

Even though Monroe County leadership made the decision to convert the formerly all-volunteer Sugarloaf Fire Department to a partial career force a few months back, the two sides in the ongoing struggle have yet to reach common ground on how exactly that plays out in the future.

While the county pays for the equipment and the career firefighters at the station, the station itself and the land it sits on are owned by the volunteer corporation.

After several rebukes of the county’s move to put paid personnel there, the volunteer corporation finally acquiesced and agreed that for proper coverage of the Sugarloaf area, a mixture of paid and volunteer personnel would be necessary.

“We spent quite a bit of money from a grant trying to recruit more volunteers to keep the station as a volunteer force,” said President Kevin Gerard. “What we found is that this area is not one where people join a volunteer force.”

Gerard said that volunteer recruiting efforts have been more successful in other areas of the Keys, “But on Sugarloaf we have more of a semi-retired or retired population, and a large percentage of residents who only live here part time. It became too hard to try and staff the station for proper coverage with just volunteers.”

So the corporation agreed to lease the station to Monroe County and accept a partial career force.

An inspection earlier this year by consultants who rate fire coverage for the purposes of homeowners insurance ratings opined that because the number of volunteer personnel at the Sugarloaf station was  so low, the area wasn’t properly covered and the insurance rating would have been the worst the area could receive.

That in turn had the possibility to drive up insurance for all homeowners in the Sugarloaf coverage area, and possibly make obtaining insurance in some of the more remote areas nearly impossible. Homeowners may also have run the risk of having current policies canceled.

Thus the move to a career force.

But that didn’t end the negotiations between the two sides.

While the volunteer corporation has agreed to lease the station to the county for $10 per year, which allows Monroe County to spend money to staff, maintain and operate the station, as well as purchase more varied equipment, the current sticking point is how to house the career personnel at the station.

Paid firefighters work 24-hour shifts, making berthing necessary.

“This station was never designed with the idea to house firefighters here,” said Gerard.

County fire officials wanted to simply build berthing areas in the interior of the station, either in the gym area or in the community room.

That won’t work, says Gerard.

“This a community facility, has been throughout its history. We have various groups that use the community meeting room for various purposes during the year. We have contracts with them. We have to honor those,” he said.

Temporarily, county officials installed some stand-alone lockers and free-standing bunks along the back wall of the community meeting room, but the volunteer board decided at its last meeting that because of its own community commitments, that arrangement could only last another three months or so.

“I guess if the career personnel are willing to share the space with the community groups, maybe tarp over their area when the room is being used, we could live with the arrangement, but it’s not optimal,” said Gerard.

So county officials are currently seeking a work around for the berthing issue. When County Fire Chief  Jim Callahan placed career personnel in the station last year for about eight months, they were housed off site in a rental house. That became prohibitively expensive.

In the last week, county officials have discussed the possibility of installing permanent trailer on the site, about 12 by 56 feet, to house the career personnel during their shift.

“That’s acceptable to us I would think,” said Gerard.

But there might be issues with flood regulations.

According to an internal memo from Callahan, the fire department would have to get permission from Growth Management to rule the living quarters as an accessory structure instead of a residential unit or run the risk of needing to elevate the structure above base flood level.

“That’s the general offer we’ve made to the county,” said Gerard. “We’re still waiting on their response.”

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