By Nirvi Shah
Fire rescue officials from Boynton Beach and Palm Beach County pledged to improve emergency response times in the county pocket — even without an agreement in hand that would put the city in charge of the area.
Boynton Beach has fire stations much closer to the area and already serves neighboring Briny Breezes and Ocean Ridge, which pay for those services. But city commissioners couldn’t give their blessing to an adoption of more residents to serve without a plan for payment in place, among other issues.
The discussion was triggered by the death of Bill Dunn in November. It took county fire rescue workers more than 11 minutes to reach Dunn, who was choking. Under an existing mutual aid agreement, the county could have called Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Steve Jerauld said.
The way the system works, county fire rescue staff decide to call upon other agencies based on the nature of the call or if county workers are spread too thin working other calls. The proposed agreement would have cut out the dispatcher, rerouting every county pocket call automatically to Boynton Beach.
In Dunn’s case, Jerauld said, conflicting information about the severity of the 48-year-old’s condition from the people on the phone — at one point they said he was breathing — led to dispatchers’ decision not to call another agency.
“With hindsight, I wish we had called Boynton for sure,” Jerauld said, adding, “There’s no way to tell had they been called as to whether the outcome would be different.” On average, it takes Palm Beach County emergency workers 11 to 16 minutes to reach the county pocket. Overall, the county responds on average in 6 minutes and 26 seconds to calls countywide, spokesman Don Delucia said. The average response time by Boynton Beach is 4 minutes, 2 seconds, city Fire Rescue Chief William Bingham said.
Bingham said that, based on conversations with Jerauld, “We have agreed to allow our existing mutual aid agreement to resolve the issue of extended response times for fire and emergency medical service calls to this area in which a delay in response time may have a detrimental effect on the outcome.”
He said he expects Boynton Beach will respond to the county pocket more often than in the past. None of this takes the approval of the City Commission, which questioned the cost of serving the area, whether it would compromise service to the city’s taxpaying residents and if Delray Beach should be asked to be the first responder to the southernmost area in question. They also think they should be in charge of conducting fire inspections in the area to ensure buildings have as many fire prevention measures in place as possible.
“We didn’t reject anything,” newly elected Mayor Jose Rodriguez said. “We said ‘Chief, can you go back and see if that makes any sense or not?’ ”
County Commissioner Steven Abrams initially proposed the change after hearing from county pocket residents upset about how events unfolded the day of Dunn’s death. After city commissioners balked at the automatic mutual aid agreement, he said he asked Jerauld to figure something else out.
“That will be the stop-gap as we continue to iron this out,” said Abrams, who was not expecting city commissioners’ lack of action.
But county pocket resident and former fire fighter Mike Smollon, who reached out to Abrams, said he will wait and see how future emergency calls are handled before being satisfied with the solution the county and city fire rescue chiefs have cobbled together.
“We don’t really know what would happen if my neighbor starts choking on a piece of meat,” Smollon said, adding that the county should have had a plan in place to better serve county pocket residents long before Dunn’s death. “They didn’t just drop the ball on that one call. They have totally let it sit there until it bit them.”
Last year, Bingham said Palm Beach County responded to 58 calls in all to the county pocket — and it took an average of more than 11 minutes for fire rescue to arrive. Of those calls, 42 were for medical emergencies. In most cases, the city would be able to recoup expenses associated with those calls through medical insurance. Of the remaining calls, seven were for fires, including two in area high-rises, three were about car accidents and six were false alarms.
Boynton Beach City Manager Kurt Bressner could have signed off on the measure without consulting commissioners, but he instead chose to present it at a city meeting that was the first for two newly elected commissioners and the first with Rodriguez presiding as mayor.
“I thought it was important that the commission look at this,” Bressner said. “I got the sense that they would have had an issue with it. Everybody’s looking at dollars now, (although) from the average citizen’s point of view they don’t care what color the fire engine is. They just want it to be there.”