By Rich Pollack
More than a year after a sometimes contentious split in which Highland Beach told Delray Beach it no longer wants the city’s fire rescue services, the two municipalities are in talks to determine if — and how — they can work together down the road.
Fire chiefs from both communities met Aug. 1 to begin hammering out an agreement that would be beneficial both to Delray Beach and to Highland Beach, which is scheduled to start its own fire department in May 2024.
The meeting came just a few weeks after the county’s Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council tabled a vote on whether to recommend to the Palm Beach County Commission that Highland Beach receive a certification of need, and asked that the two municipalities talk about helping each other.
Details on how a partnership between the two communities would be structured are up in the air, with a fee-for-service option on the table.
“We have to figure out a framework for working with Delray,” said Highland Beach Town Manager Marshall Labadie. “In the long run, it will be good for both parties. It has the potential to be a win-win for both of us.
Delray Beach Fire Rescue Chief Keith Tomey said the last word on whether there will be an agreement with Highland Beach rests with city commissioners.
Tomey, who met with Highland Beach’s newly appointed fire chief, Glenn Joseph, said much of the initial discussion focused on how Delray Beach could assist Highland Beach if needed.
“My main focus is on the safety of my firefighters and the residents of Delray Beach and Highland Beach,” he said.
Highland Beach Mayor Doug Hillman said the town is looking forward to discussing an agreement. “We are happy to discuss mutual aid as long as it’s mutually beneficial,” he said.
Under the current agreement, Delray Beach staffs Highland Beach’s fire station with a rescue vehicle and a fire truck. Because that station is considered part of Delray’s overall system, backup vehicles are available from stations within the city limits.
In addition, the Delray Beach firefighters and paramedics assigned to Highland Beach currently respond to calls within Delray’s city limits. A recent study showed that the station was dispatched to about 670 calls a year in Delray, about half of its total calls.
Tomey said his department will be able to absorb those calls by filling almost two dozen open positions.
Highland Beach is planning to spend up to $10 million approved by voters to build a new station and include two fire trucks and two rescue vehicles.
“We have the ability to supply mutual aid service to adjacent municipalities,” Labadie said.
The EMS council’s vote is a potential stumbling block.
In order to provide emergency medical services to residents and potentially Delray Beach, Highland Beach must receive a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which must be approved by the County Commission.
During its meeting last month, members of the EMS council were prepared to vote on recommending approval but stopped when it was suggested that the decision be tabled until after Highland Beach and Delray Beach meet.
The council also asked for reassurances from Highland Beach that it would have three paramedics on each rescue wagon.
Prior to the tabling of the vote, Tomey expressed concern about whether Highland Beach’s plan to have seven firefighter/paramedics on a shift would be adequate.
Labadie, pointing out that Highland Beach averages about two calls per day, believes the proposed staffing levels are adequate but is not closing the door on a small increase in personnel per shift.
Both Labadie and Hillman say they are optimistic that the council will recommend that the County Commission approve the town’s application.
“We have public support, we have capacity, and we have proven value,” Labadie said.