The Zephyrhills City Council has decided to continue operating the city’s fire department on its own and not to merge with Pasco County Fire Rescue.
Council members agreed unanimously to keep the status quo, ensuring the department will remain intact and continue to utilize its two fire stations.
The council’s unanimous support for the department drew a standing ovation for its action, from several fire department employees and their families at the council’s May 23 meeting.
The decision came after Zephyrhills City Manager Steven Spina presented three potential scenarios for the fire department going forward:
- Option 1: Maintain the status quo and continue to operate as a city fire department with two stations and current personnel. Also, immediately advertise for a fire chief to fill the vacancy.
- Option 2: Begin discussions with Pasco County on the concept of consolidating the department with Pasco County Fire Rescue.
- Options 3: Consider the option of closing one fire station — likely station 2 — and consolidate fire services into one station to reduce operating and equipment costs.
Spina outlined the pros and cons for each option, figuring it was a prudent time to have a discussion on the topic, especially with the department’s amplified $2.4 million budget and its frequent management turnover. The department has had three fire chiefs in four years, including last month’s resignation of Fire Chief Daniel Spillman.
While the city manager wasn’t looking for an immediate answer from the council, he was given one: they agreed that Option 1 was the top choice.
“I think the citizens that we serve deserve the top quality that they get by having their own fire department and their own police department,” Councilman Charles E. Proctor said. “I can’t see myself voting to eliminate the Zephyrhills Fire Department.”
Kenneth Burgess, the council’s president, concurred: “I feel like it’s insurance—you hope you never have to use it, but you’re glad it’s there.
“I’m a big proponent of the city fire department,” he said.
A 2015 report compiled by the former fire chief shows that 1 percent to 2 percent of Zephyrhills Fire and Rescue calls are fire related, while 76 percent of all calls are medical in nature. Nearly 23 percent of all calls are cancelled within route.
Spina noted there’s duplication in services with the city and Pasco County Fire Rescue, since the county also responds to all medical and fire calls. The county is then responsible for transporting all medical patients to hospital care, which they’re required to do by state law.
As a result, 80 percent or more of all emergency calls are covered by both agencies, the report shows.
Despite the duplication, Zephyrhills Fire Lt. Mike Richards feels it’s crucial for the city to still have its own fully staffed fire department.
Richards addressed the council, acknowledging calls could be handled more efficiently and effectively with the county. But, Richards was quick to comment that his fire rescue team often arrives to the scene at least three minutes faster than the county, which he said is a significant timeframe, especially in emergencies such as a heart attack or stroke.
“A three- to four-minute window on a medical call can make a major difference,” said Richards, noting the city’s sizable middle-to upper-aged population. “Minutes count — and I mean even one (minute) to two minutes.”
Richards said the department’s personnel supports keeping the status quo, and rebuked the idea of merging fire services with the county.
“There is a community connection to having your own services,” he said. “The second you allow an outside agency to (handle services), you’re under contract, and if it doesn’t fit the contract, you pay extra or you start negotiating. You have no control, and it’s a detriment to your community.”
That was the feeling of many people present during the meeting, including Zephyrhills resident Sharon Reisman.
“I’d like to keep things in a small city local,” Reisman said. “I think it gives you more control. I know it would probably save a lot of money when you consolidate with the county, but I think when you have local firefighters and local people protecting their own city, they’re more interested in it; it makes the people feel better.”
While the report also shows that about 80 percent of calls are made in the northern tier of the city, the Zephyrhills fire lieutenant was also against consolidating operations into one fire station, which essentially would eliminate staffing for Zephyrhills Fire Rescue Station 2, located on Sixth Avenue.
“This city’s physical size is long, not super wide. I cannot get to a citizen in the south near as fast,” Richards said.
The meeting concluded with the council directing Dr. Spina to begin the search for a new fire chief.
“Well, Dr. Spina, I think it’s time to hire a fire chief,” Burgess said at meeting’s end.
Published June 1, 2016