12438231900?profile=RESIZE_710xGary Chancey, an engineer-driver for the new Highland Beach Fire Rescue, receives his department badge from his wife, Liz Chancey, an engineer-driver for Riviera Beach Fire Rescue. The ceremony at the new Highland Beach station included (l-r) Chief Glenn Joseph and his assistant chiefs Tom McCarthy and Matt Welhaf. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

New department is first of its kind in Palm Beach County in 31 years

By Rich Pollack

The critics said it couldn’t be done.

They said starting a new fire department in Highland Beach would be too expensive and would bankrupt the town. They said the quality of service would slide downhill, and that navigating the state and county bureaucratic requirements would prove insurmountable.

They even told the town’s fire chief, who had been a chief in Boynton Beach and a deputy chief in Boca Raton, that he was crazy to take the job.

Yet this month, Highland Beach Fire Rescue launched operations, the first new municipal fire department in Palm Beach County since Tequesta’s in 1993, with promises to provide improved services at a significantly reduced cost.

“Everyone says you can’t do it because that’s the easy answer,” says Highland Beach Fire Rescue Chief Glenn Joseph. “But when you do an objective assessment, you see there’s costs, but you weigh that against the benefits.”

The benefits, town leaders say, are not just cost savings and enhanced service, but also long-term control over expenses and operations.
“This is another chapter in Highland Beach becoming a full-service community,” said Town Manager Marshall Labadie. “Not only did we do it, we did it right.”

Mayor Natasha Moore said getting the new department up and running took a “Herculean effort.”

“This was an incredibly important and complicated task that Highland Beach was able to accomplish,” she said. “The lesson here is that towns want to have services that address the specific needs of their residents and are willing to put in the work to make it happen.”

12438232861?profile=RESIZE_710xThe new station went into service May 1, the date Highland Beach officially launched its own fire rescue department.

Contract costs escalate
For more than three decades, Highland Beach received fire rescue service from neighboring Delray Beach. However, as annual costs climbed above the $5 million mark, town leaders began wondering if they could do better on their own.

In recent years, Highland Beach has challenged the city’s billing and the method the city uses to calculate its charges. While town leaders think that the city has overbilled for its services, a recent state audit showed that the town could actually owe Delray Beach as much as $2 million that was never billed.

Three years ago, after receiving the conclusions of a consultant’s study they requested, commissioners decided to create a town fire rescue department that they believed would meet the needs of residents at a lower cost.

They gave Delray Beach the required three years’ notice and now that day has finally arrived.

“This new town-run fire rescue department allows us to fully reach our commitment to provide the best service to our residents so we can ensure their health and safety to the best of our ability,” Labadie said.

Essential to the town’s success, Labadie said, was the support of the community, which in a 2021 vote overwhelmingly approved spending up to $10 million on a new fire department, with just shy of 90% approval. “We were able to do this because the community wanted it, the community was willing to pay for it and to put in a leadership team to make it happen,” he said.

Small town, single station
That Highland Beach is small, just 3.3 miles long with a population under 5,000, also helped make a new fire department possible, since the department has only about 30 employees and operates one station. The town also has a wealthy population that can financially support a new fire department.

“A single-station community with a smaller staffing requirement is easier to start up than a department in a larger community,” said Robert Finn of Matrix Consulting Group, which provided the study the town used in deciding to start the department.

Town leaders say that they expect to save more than $1 million a year in operating costs by having their own department and believe they can recover the estimated $10 million in start-up costs — about $8 million of which covered the cost of a new fire station — in five to seven years.

“Now the town has control over how the costs will escalate,” Joseph said.

12438232688?profile=RESIZE_710xMost of the new department turned out for the formal opening of the completed station. TOP (l-r): Tyler McCarthy, Rodrigo Landeo, Justin Henry, Daniel Rush, Alisha Vidal, Ricardo Robinson, Kristian Williams, Kristi Kemper, Megan Cyr, Alex Lutz, Kyle Pavelka (behind Lutz) and Stephen Burt. BELOW: (l-r) James Peterson, James Steyn, Erik Lenzen (behind Steyn), Daniel Stearns, Gary Chancey, Assistant Chief Matt Welhaf, captains Mike Benoit, Alex Fernandez, Chris Zidar and Robert Kruse, Assistant Chief Tom McCarthy, Chief Glenn Joseph,T.J. DiGangi, Cameron Abraham, Kevin Maxwell, Sean Conner, Cale Brader, Raynier Charafardin and Joe Nolan.
Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

More staff, more vehicles
Although the operating costs will shrink, the number of firefighter paramedics based in town will increase as will the number of trucks and rescue units, town leaders say.

Prior to the town’s taking over, Delray Beach provided five firefighter paramedics per shift in Highland Beach. They staffed a rescue unit and a fire truck. With the new department in place, there will be seven firefighter paramedics on each shift and two rescue units and two fire trucks available.

Labadie has pointed out that in most cases there will be three firefighter paramedics on the rescue truck as opposed to the two on the rescue vehicle staffed by Delray Beach.

In addition to Joseph, the town has two assistant chiefs and a public safety administrative assistant on the team.

The Delray Beach firefighters in town responded to calls in the city as well as in Highland Beach. Joseph said his new department would always have a rescue unit on the barrier island to respond to calls in the town.

‘Concierge’ department
Joseph and Labadie have both referred to the new department as a concierge fire department that will put a higher focus on the needs of residents.

“What makes it a concierge fire department is that we’re going to be proactive,” the chief said. “Most fire departments are reactive.”

With an expected average of 2.5 calls per day, the new department staff will have more opportunity to meet with residents and address prevention issues.

Matt Welhaf, an assistant chief, focuses on risk reduction. Welhaf, who is also the town’s fire marshal, will perform routine fire prevention inspections at no cost. Previously that service came with a charge to condo associations or residents.

Joseph said that the department hopes to bring a service called Community Connect online that will enable residents to volunteer information — such as pets and medications — that firefighter paramedics will receive when being dispatched to a specific address.

The new fire station is named after former Mayor Doug Hillman, who led the charge for the new department before he died in March 2023. During a ribbon-cutting ceremony, residents had a chance to tour the facility.

The station includes an Emergency Operation Center, as well as a lobby with restrooms accessible to residents, and was completed on time and about $200,000 under budget.

Highland Beach will keep the existing fire station, which town leaders said was obsolete, and use the two bays for the backup truck and rescue unit. The living quarters of the old station could eventually be transformed into a public area that would house community events.

Among those supporting the department is the town’s Police and Fire Foundation, which provides items not included in the budget.

“We will continue to work with Chief Joseph on needs not met by the normal budget process,” said Jason Chudnofsky, who serves as the foundation’s president. “We will make sure that the men and women of the fire department have the community support needed to better serve all residents of Highland Beach.”

12438233867?profile=RESIZE_710xThe fire rescue staff trained at a facility in Riviera Beach. ABOVE: (l-r) James Steyn, Joe Nolan and Gary Chancey watch as Erik Lenzen prepares to go up a ladder during training. BELOW: Tyler McCarthy simulates the rescue of a child. 12438233097?profile=RESIZE_584x

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