By Jane Smith
Fourteen years after Boynton Beach installed fire hydrants in the County Pocket, its seven hydrants were finally mapped in May.
“We rely on water departments to send the information,” David Sauls, a fire safety specialist with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, said of hydrant locations. “Sometimes we can’t use their info because the database is not compatible with ours.”
He could not say why the hydrants were not mapped in 2003 when they were installed, because he had a different job with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue at that time.
Maps of fire hydrants are used by county emergency dispatchers to send out the fire-rescue and sheriff response.
Boynton Beach installed the water mains and the hydrants and tests them annually, said Colin Groff, former head of the city’s utilities department and now an assistant city manager.
Groff also said he did not know why the hydrants weren’t mapped because he was not working for Boynton Beach in 2003.
“County pockets with city services are often problematic,” Groff said.
The unincorporated pocket with narrow streets sits just south of Briny Breezes and relies on the county for public safety services. The area spans about 16.5 acres with fewer than 100 dwellings, including 52 single-family homes. The popular Nomad Surf Shop and Seaside Deli also are in the pocket.
Residents enjoy living so close to the beach and watch out for each other, said Marie Chapman, a 10-year pocket resident. “It’s like a mini-Mayberry filled with eclectic residents,” she said.
But in the back of her mind, she worries about fire-rescue response times because of her two young children. Chapman said her concerns stem from a friend, Bill Dunn, who died in 2009 and outsiders who park their cars on Old Ocean Boulevard while they go to the beach. Doing so blocks that street for the large fire-rescue vehicles to reach the pocket.
Insurance notice triggered investigation
Periodically, County Pocket homeowners receive notices from insurance carriers that their coverage is being dropped, according to Stuart Malin, a pocket resident of five years.
“A new carrier said it couldn’t find any records of fire hydrants in the area and wanted to charge me a high rate as if we didn’t have hydrants,” Malin said.
He took photos of the hydrants and called Sauls. “He said he would come out and look … [and] not to worry in the meantime, because they can bring in big tanker trucks,” Malin said.
Sauls came out to the pocket and found the hydrants. He updated the hydrant maps on his iPad. Meanwhile, Malin also contacted pocket resident Mike Smollon, a retired Boynton Beach Fire Rescue captain.
“Neighbors often ask me about fire-related issues,” Smollon said.
Malin explained the higher rate his insurance carrier wanted to charge because the county maps didn’t show any fire hydrants in the pocket. Smollon agreed to look into the issue.
Smollon played a leading role in improving emergency response times in late 2009 after Dunn, 48, choked to death while eating a piece of steak. County fire-rescue took more than 12 minutes to arrive from its station at Woolbright Road and Military Trail.
“It should not have happened,” Smollon said.
In late 2009, after Dunn died, Smollon met with County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who represents the County Pocket, then-Boynton Beach Fire Chief William Bingham, then-County Fire Chief Steve Jerauld and a county deputy fire chief.
Smollon found and shared a mutual aid agreement from 1990 made between the fire departments of Boynton Beach and Palm Beach County. The agreement called for Boynton Beach to respond to life-threatening emergencies or when the county station was busy.
Minor calls, such as fire on the beach or a barrel washed ashore, would be the responsibility of the county fire department.
Boynton Beach Fire Rescue was not called the night Dunn died.
The mutual aid agreement was further clarified in early 2011. Now, Boynton Beach sends a unit from its South Federal Highway station to respond to life-threatening emergencies in the pocket. These are defined as choking, seizure, allergic reaction, car accident, drowning, structure fire, cardiac arrest, trouble breathing, unresponsive person, electrocution, shooting/stabbing and aircraft/boating accident.
The clarified agreement works like this: The emergency calls go to the county dispatch center, which contacts the nearest county fire station on West Woolbright Road. An officer there decides whether to send a rescue team or if Boynton Beach should be called.
In 2015, when Delray Beach joined the county dispatch system, the county’s non-emergency calls started going to the city’s barrier island station on Andrews Avenue.
The process sounds time-consuming, but “it adds only seconds to the response time,” Smollon said.
In 2016, Boynton Beach paramedics responded to eight medical calls in the pocket, according to Boynton Beach Fire Rescue records. Its average response time was 5 minutes and 21 seconds. The city has its own dispatch system for 911 calls.
Delray Beach Fire Rescue responded to 24 calls in the pocket last year. Its average response time was 10 minutes and 16 seconds, according to county fire-rescue, which tracks the incidents.
Smollon realizes the narrow and dead-end streets in the enclave can be challenging for fire trucks and rescue vehicles to navigate. Even so, he said, “We are paying our taxes and we expect to be treated right.”