Price, logistics of starting own department might prove too much, expert says
By Rich Pollack
Surprised by an increase in the cost of fire service for the next fiscal year, Highland Beach commissioners are again wondering whether it would make sense for the small community to have its own fire department.
Currently, Highland Beach has a contract with neighboring Delray Beach to staff the town’s small fire station and provide fire and emergency medical services.
For the coming fiscal year, the cost jumped 8.6 percent to about $4.22 million, causing commissioners to worry about increasing costs for the remaining seven years of the 10-year agreement. Commissioners budgeted $4.28 million total for fire services next year, which includes maintenance costs.
“If we want to keep this agreement, it’s going to go up for the next seven or eight years,” said Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila, one of the strongest proponents of looking into the feasibility of starting a fire department.
Africano Nila said she discovered that Broward County’s Lighthouse Point, a city of a little more than 10,000 residents, operates its own fire department at a reasonable cost.
“Obviously, it’s feasible for a small town to have its own fire department,” she said.
In fact, according to Lighthouse Point City Administrator John Lavisky, the city runs its 26-person department for slightly less than what Highland Beach pays Delray Beach for fire service.
Lavisky, Lighthouse Point’s fire chief from 1995 to 2003, oversaw the operations of 26 U.S. Air Force fire departments prior to coming to South Florida. He said the town’s Fire Department budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $4.1 million.
To cover the 2.3-mile town, Lighthouse Point has two EMS vehicles, a ladder truck and an engine.
With a fire station located in the center of the city, the department has a response time of between three and four minutes.
“Our department is very lean,” Lavisky said. “We have 26 people and we make it work.”
Should it need additional resources, Lighthouse Point has an agreement with neighboring Pompano Beach to provide backup.
While there are similarities between Lighthouse Point and Highland Beach, there are differences as well, especially in the types of structures. Lighthouse Point has several businesses, while commercial properties are almost nonexistent in Highland Beach.
Another big difference: Lighthouse Point has a four-story height limit, while Highland Beach has several high-rise buildings, which would require additional apparatus and staffing.
While it may be possible to operate a fire department at a cost similar to what Highland Beach is paying Delray Beach, starting from scratch might be a different story.
In addition to what could amount to millions of dollars in costs, there is a range of issues that has to be considered.
“You can’t just flip a switch and have a fire department,” says Robert Finn, a senior manager at the Matrix Consulting Group and a former fire chief. “It would be a big task for any agency. There are a lot of steps and a lot of things to consider.”
Finn, whose company was hired three years ago to study the feasibility of a barrier island fire department in south Palm Beach County — which would have included Highland Beach — says too often communities find the challenges and potential costs overwhelming.
“Most times they decide to continue to contract with whoever they’re working with,” he said.
Finn said it could take as long as a year for a community to start its own fire department and during those 12 months, the town would have to continue paying its current contractor while also paying a fire chief and any additional personnel on board prior to a conversion.
“You want to get an administrative staff to develop policies and then begin recruiting staff,” he said. “In South Florida, there is some difficulty in hiring people who are already certified.”
In addition to paying training costs, Finn said, a startup department has to worry about equipment, including additional trucks to ensure backup vehicles are available during maintenance.
There’s also potential station remodeling issues as well as providing equipment for the firefighters and paramedics.
“Each firefighter has to have their own gear,” he said.
Besides direct costs, indirect costs also have to be considered.
Starting a fire department, Finn said, has an impact on a town’s departments for human resources, finance, technology and legal affairs, which would be needed to negotiate union contracts.
“For some departments, when you lay all those cards on the table, it becomes too large a task,” he said.
To help municipalities with the decision-making, Finn’s company provides extensive feasibility studies, which typically run between $40,000 and $50,000.
“It gives them a blueprint and an implementation plan,” he said. “It has all the information needed to make a decision.”
For Lighthouse Point and Lavisky, startup costs weren’t much of a problem. The city’s Fire Department started as a volunteer department in the 1960s and was converted to a full-time department in the 1970s.
The department added emergency medical services in 1999 and now has a part-time medical director who is paid $18,000 a year.
“Starting a department takes time and you have to have someone who can plan it out,” he said.